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The press on trial

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THIS past weekend, I fulfilled a longstanding promise to meet with graduates from a small Massachusetts college. Out of school a couple of years, they wanted to chat about politics, government, the press, foreign policy. Some were in business for themselves, others in the professions. They were bound by no common ideology, no religion, no social background.

What did unite them was a scathing contempt for the press. They slashed away at what they saw as often sensationalist coverage, particularly by television, of such stories as hostage-taking and airliner-hijackings. They were bitterly critical of what they considered excessive coverage of the Iran-contra affair.

There was something of a contradiction on this latter point, for they were also unanimously scathing about the Reagan administration's handling of the overture to Iran, and the diversion of arms profits to the Nicaraguan contras. But the administration's wrongdoing did not, in their eyes, exempt the press from what they considered overkill coverage.

What intrigued me was that these were not necessarily conservatives, not necessarily Reagan supporters, and certainly not critics whose minds had been made up over long years about the press.

In recent months I have listened to similar outbursts from classes of talented Foreign Service officers, and groups of handpicked military officers doing their War College stint.

Perhaps the military men lean to the conservative side. But the Foreign Service officers are drawn from all quarters of the political spectrum.

What it seems to add up to is that those press diehards who say their profession is not in trouble with the public are just not reading the signs correctly. A lot of the polling indicates there is a press credibility problem. But some editors are discounting this data and urging that those in charge of our news organizations should simply tough it out.

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