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DONALDSON--THE PROS AND CONS

Play it again, Sam.

Here’s a vote for oft-criticized Sam Donaldson, the TV reporter probably most associated with Ronald Reagan-bashing and one of those brash people you either like a lot or loathe.

Thank goodness for him.

How aggressive is ABC’s Donaldson? How aggressive was “Jaws”? If you prefer your reporters to be patsies, this is not your man.

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Donaldson is the White House press corps’ serrated edge, drawing blood and leaving scars. He is the reporter who seems to ask the sharpest questions at press briefings and shout the loudest questions from afar at orchestrated photo opportunities designed to sweeten Reagan’s image.

He is tough, smart, informed, dogged and blunt. So blunt, in fact, that some of his detractors insist that he is as much commentator as reporter, that he mixes opinion and fact.

TV has made Donaldson America’s most famous reporter. No one else is even close. He is as much a victim of the celebrity that TV bequeathes its news personalities, though, as he is a beneficiary. No matter how objective he may try to be, what he says about a story can overshadow the story because it is Sam Donaldson saying it. He is so well-known and his attitudes so well-publicized that his mere presence on a story puts a twist on it. When a known hit man walks through the door, he doesn’t have to pull his gun to instill fear.

So the anti-Donaldson crowd does have a point.

Donaldson the reporter and Donaldson the commentator sometimes appear to merge.

One problem is that only the thinnest of lines separates analysis--which is a legitimate function of reporting--and opinion. In fact, the difference, one mostly of emphasis and tone, may be visible only to those in the profession.

Another problem is that Donaldson lugs around too much journalistic baggage in his dual role as ABC’s chief White House correspondent and as an opinionated regular on “This Weekend Wth David Brinkley” every Sunday.

Two hats are not always better than one.

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“You don’t see commentator George Will standing in front of the White House telling (America) what happened today,” commentator Bruce Herschensohn said in blasting Donaldson Friday on KABC and KABC-TV Channel 7.

True. Will, friend and supporter of Reagan, is a syndicated columnist as well as Donaldson’s fellow regular on the Brinkley show.

Donaldson, Will and a guest commentator cap each Brinkley hour with a lively exchange of opinion about the week’s major stories. ABC may want to call it analysis, but to everyone else, it’s outright opinion.

Will afterward resumes his life as America’s premier political columnist. But the next time you see Donaldson, he may be doing a stand-up in front of the White House, reporting to the nation in a supposedly unbiased and unprejudiced manner.

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Well, maybe.

Donaldson the commentator and Donaldson the reporter don’t separate that easily. At least, they don’t in the perceptions of some viewers. You see one, you see the other. You can’t forget that the man covering the White House is the same man you saw in another forum being sharply critical of the White House’s media high jinks, as he was Sunday on the Brinkley show.

We’ve been skirting the edges here. The primary issue is really Ronald Reagan--and Donaldson’s alleged bias against the President.

Donaldson has been publicly critical of the White House’s shielding of Reagan from reporters, especially in light of still-unanswered questions stemming from the Tower Commission report on the Iran/ contra scandal.

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More than any other TV reporter, he has been openly skeptical of “Operation Rebound,” his label for the White House’s public relations campaign to diffuse concern about Reagan’s competency to govern. If the President is on top of things, Donaldson asks, reasonably, why won’t he face the press?

No wonder that Donaldson is the reporter that conservatives most love to hate, and that some of them see Sam sabotaging Uncle Sam. The posturing Robert Novak has accused Donaldson on TV of having an anti-Reagan agenda. And Herschensohn charged that Donaldson’s post-speech analysis of Reagan’s Wednesday night TV address was aimed at turning the nation against the President.

The President’s own staff and Iran arms policy have accomplished that without help from Donaldson or anyone else.

Herschensohn, who rigidly views the media as a sort of a monolithic, left-pointing Maginot Line, believes that Donaldson is a commentator in reporter’s clothing even when not appearing on the Brinkley show. There were “two speeches Wednesday night,” he charged, first Reagan’s and then Donaldson’s.

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Give Herschensohn credit for taking on even Channel 7’s parent network, ABC. And, to a degree, he is right about Donaldson, who did seem far too testy about Reagan’s speech Wednesday and may be finding it harder and harder to separate his roles.

Better two hats for the valuable Donaldson than none at all. Still better, two hats worn one at a time.


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