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Nonfiction in Brief

ON BENDED KNEE The Press and the Reagan Presidency by Mark Hertsgaard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.50)

September 18, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Journalists covering the White House often seem as scrutinized as the most controversial presidential appointee: Conservatives lambaste them for asking too many pesky questions, while liberals, such as author Mark Hertsgaard, accuse them of parroting Administration handouts without conducting an aggressive investigation or intelligent inquiry. Public opinion polls mirror these conflicting expectations: Journalists are "too liberal," Americans say in some polls, while in others, they claim that journalists are "too influenced by powerful people." Hertsgaard did find some consensus among news executives and White House officials: Both contend that President Reagan has been one of the least scrutinized presidents in our nation's history.

The consensus is short-lived, however, for Hertsgaard's 175 interview subjects (from James Baker and Robert McFarlane to Tom Brokaw and New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal) have very different ideas of who is responsible for the lax coverage. Some blame the Administration itself for concealing issues behind images. As Leslie Janka, former deputy press secretary in the Reagan White House, put it, "This was a PR outfit that became President and took over the country . . . The Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that . . . But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations." Others--including Hertsgaard and even former White House communications director David Gergen--say most of the blame lies with the press. Hertsgaard contends, for example, that reporters consistently failed to scrutinize Reagan Administration statements on the Strategic Defense Initiative even though none of Reagan's senior advisers believed that SDI could act as a leakproof nuclear umbrella.

Finding no consensus about past blame and future responsibility, "On Bended Knee" ultimately raises more controversy than it settles. Through aggressive and intelligent interviews, however, Hertsgaard succeeds in defining the major issues, such as whether reporters should treat White House statements as opinion (seeking corroboration from domestic and international reporters and from government officials) or as fact (organizing "the news" around official statements).

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