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Reagan and the self-important press

SENATOR SIMPSON'S testy message to members of the press - that they were out to ``stick'' the President when he was ``off balance'' - was said by some observers to have intimidated those who asked questions at the last Presidential press conference. It did nothing of the kind. Instead, it protected the White House press from dumping on Mr. Reagan the other night and thereby protected themselves from looking overly aggressive in the eyes of the millions watching on TV. Those reporters should thank Mr. Simpson for being ``Simpsonized,'' as some critics of the Wyoming senator have put it.

The senator really touched on how many boorish, chesty, really stuffy journalists have emerged in Washington - particularly among regular TV performers and those print people with a lot of television visibility.

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NBC commentator John Chancellor is a notable exception to this trend. Chancellor, as able and as highly regarded as any newsman on TV, is, as some of the others are not, essentially a reporter who relies heavily on what he sees and learns firsthand. And those who have known him through the years are well aware that he is still the same unassuming fellow he was when he was just getting started back in Chicago.

The public senses this about the press whenever it watches the confrontation of reporters with the President on television. When these journalists are seen tangling with their usually good-humored President, the public doesn't like it.

And even those who may fault Mr. Reagan for his approval of the Iran arms deal are asking, ``Who elected these people to positions where they feel they can stand toe-to-toe with the President and try to face him down, even insult him?''

What the White House reporters fail to see is how lacking in self-importance this President is. Indeed, no one could fault either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford for having an inflated view of his own importance.

Thus, for years now this picture has been emerging at these press conferences: of a modest president being questioned and often grilled and pestered by reporters who quite obviously take themselves too seriously.

Is it any wonder then that the media are drawing so much public ire at a time when these very questioners feel they are doing their job - even providing a public service - by asking probing questions of a President who, indeed, has had a lot to explain?

Of course, we must have good, probing questions. But these journalists simply don't understand that their demeanor and the accusatory nature of their questions focus public displeasure on themselves.

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Senator Simpson's remarks kept most of the questioners the other night from standing up and acting as if they were as important as, or perhaps even more important than, Mr. Reagan.

What happened then was a little less ``show biz,'' and in this context of tempered assertiveness the whole conference benefitted. The President performed well, and the public doubtless focused more on Mr. Reagan and less on the questioners. That's the way it should be.

What makes the White House press so aggressive at these press conferences or at other opportunities to rag the President? The answer supplied by the reporters themselves is a reasonable one: That the journalists charged with covering Mr. Reagan are frustrated because of the few opportunities they get to talk to this chief executive.

What they don't say, however, is that this tough and often even nasty questioning approach has been going on for a number of years now - especially since Watergate.

Watergate was not the proudest moment for the White House press corps. Those reporters who covered Nixon on a daily basis did not divulge that scandal, nor were they able, through their reporting, to do much to move that story along.

So the White House press seems to feel that it can make sure it isn't so remiss again simply by pounding a president over the head with questions that are essentially hostile and which often really sound, to those watching on TV, something like this: ``Own up that you did it.''

Reporters, too, when on national TV, like to show off to their watching publishers. Thus they become, in a sense, actors, not journalists. So it is that, reshaped by the TV cameras pointed at them, they become louder and more abrasive than is their custom.

Suddenly, they see themselves as prosecuting attorneys as they stand up to the President and subject him to tough cross-examination.

It has been frequently said that politicians who are elected to an office that brings them to Washington often get what is called ``Potomac Fever.'' Their heads swell; so do their chests. There used to be a lot of politicians of that stripe around Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill.

Their ranks are thinning as the voters go for the unassuming candidates - and for those who remain that way after being elected. But the ranks of the self-important media people are swelling. They may awe their peers and their bosses. But the public is less than enchanted with them and their airs.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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