WASHINGTON — President Reagan chided news organizations Friday for "violation of the journalistic rules" and distortion in stories quoting White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan as saying women would have to give up their diamonds if the United States slapped sanctions on South Africa.
The controversy began when an unidentified official, in a meeting with several reporters, warned that imposition of sanctions would hurt the United States because it counts on South Africa as a supplier of strategic minerals, such as manganese, platinum, rhodium, chromium and diamonds.
"Are the women of America prepared to give up all their jewelry?" the official said. "Are the Israelis, the Belgians, the Netherlands people prepared not to engage in any more diamond trade? Are we telling ourselves that industrial diamonds--things that we need for etching, cutting, shaping of tools and so forth--that we now have to go, if anywhere, to the Soviet Union?"
After the initial account was published in The Baltimore Sun, Regan was identified in stories elsewhere as the source of the remark.
Remark Widely Criticized
Immediately, Regan was criticized by the National Organization for Women, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and others who accused him of insensitivity and sexism.
In the Rose Garden, the President was asked if he believes women "are afraid to give up their diamonds."
"No," he replied. "But I think what you all ought to worry about is the violation of the journalistic rules that led to that story because that story, according to the transcript which I've read, is a complete distortion of the truth . . . It didn't happen that way."
He did not specify which account he considered a distortion.
Refusing to confirm that Regan was the source of the remark, presidential spokesman Edward P. Djerejian said the unidentified official had been interviewed under ground rules prohibiting disclosure of his name.
"I will not break the background rules and I would venture to say I think that we should all respect the rules of the game . . . I think it's just a question of professionalism on your part and on our part," Djerejian said.
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Regan was the source of the remark, and said, "He's put his foot in his mouth again. I don't know why he does it."