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Clinton Team Not Helpful to Press, Says a Reporters Committee Study

Critics charge bad ties with media hark back to president's campaign

WHEN Princess Diana toured the National Gallery of Art recently, tourists snapped photos and followed her freely through the museum. But when reporters arrived, guards hustled them away.

Why treat the press differently? Media analysts who looked into it say orders came from the State Department: Keep the news hounds at bay.

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The gallery incident was just one example of 151 times the Clinton administration went out of its way to suppress news, throttle free speech, and limit media access to information during its first year in office, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

While the Clinton White House vowed to be open, it has often failed to improve public access, the committee says.

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the committee, says: ``President Clinton promised to reinvent government. But ... this administration has been slow to make real changes in government information policy.''

The Diana incident was only a minor tempest, but there were other, more serious cases involving public information policy. Among them:

* The Justice Department's new rule in May 1993 that after the failed Branch Davidian raid in Waco, Texas, reporters can no longer be invited to witness arrests.

* The Clinton administration's decision in April 1993 to support the installation of ``clipper chips'' in computers and telephones to give government agents access to private, coded communications.

* The White House decision in February 1994 to retain a ban on travel to Cuba by most Americans, including teachers, writers, church leaders, human rights activists, physicians, and artists.

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Analysts say that while the White House talks of openness, many officials remain suspicious of the press. Ms. Kirtley agrees with Stephen Hess, a media and political analyst at the Brookings Institution, who says: ``I don't think that Bill Clinton likes reporters. And that is part of the problem.''

Mr. Clinton's attitude may go back to the campaign, when reporters dwelt heavily on charges of his personal wrongdoing.

Soured toward reporters, the Clinton team ``got off to an incredibly rocky start'' with the White House press corps, Mr. Hess says. ``It was clear that they came in feeling very strongly that they not only didn't need the White House press, but that they knew how to get around them. By golly, they weren't going to have their stories filtered through these nattering reporters.''

What resulted were antipress actions that he calls ``mean-spirited,'' such as banning reporters from press rooms where they traditionally had access to officials.

Only when press relations grew testy did Clinton relent and call in media-meister David Gergen last year to smooth ruffled feelings.

Attorney General Janet Reno, speaking Wednesday at the National Press Club, said despite press skepticism, Clinton is genuinely striving to be open.

Reminding reporters that within her own family were five journalists - her grandfather, father, mother, brother, and aunt - Ms. Reno said: ``The president and I are under no illusions. We know how difficult it is to implement change in a government bureaucracy.''

Requests for data from journalists, scholars, lawyers, and others under the Freedom of Information Act have risen to 600,000 a year. It is costing the government $100 million annually to process requests, and even then, officials are running far behind.

Trying to speed processing, Ms. Reno has ordered officials to treat the public like customers and to presume that their requests should be granted except under special circumstances like national security.

Reno pleaded for understanding, however. She pointed to the case of a reporter who recently complained that he was still waiting after several years to get information from the government on a highly complex legal topic. Checking into it, Reno found that officials had assembled 87 packing cases full of files, with more to come. With the reporter's cooperation, Reno cut the remaining search to 90 days.

Despite Reno's soothing words, however, critics say Clinton's failure to open his government's information channels faster is disappointing.

David Mason at the Heritage Foundation says the Clinton team portrays a ``certain sanctimonious, morally superior attitude,'' which failed them on issues like Whitewater.

``Their moralistic attitude is misplaced,'' he adds. ``But if you have that attitude, you feel justified in telling reporters, `Trust us.' ''

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