Although press-bashing has become sport this political season, political leaders in this country are "ducking accountability" to the American public, and the press is letting them, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale said Friday.
"Dan Rather's manners were atrocious" in his interview Monday with Vice President George Bush on the "CBS Evening News," Mondale said, speaking at a panel on "The People, the Press & Politics" sponsored by The Times and its owner, Times Mirror Co. But so are the manners of "all good reporters I know . . . when they are on the trail of a hot story."
"We need the truth far more than we do good manners," Mondale said.
If anything, however, the politician on the panel wanted it tougher than the reporters.
"I think we have an obligation to have the appearance of fairness as well as fairness" itself, said Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson. "So I think Rather did (the press) no great favor there."
Brokaw Sees Limits
There are also limits to how far the press can go, or how much power it really has, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw said. If the politicians, particularly the President, continually duck the press, "I don't know what we can do short of taking out a posse and riding down to the White House."
Political scientist Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute disagreed, however, that the press is letting candidates off the hook.
On the contrary, he said, now the press corps is hunting out adulterers and marijuana smokers and grilling a sitting vice president on live television. The reason the press is covering matters it once ignored, Ornstein contended, is that "reporters feel guilty they let Ronald Reagan have a free ride" during his first election campaign and beyond.
No, the press hasn't pulled its punches with the President, Brokaw and Nelson countered. The problem was nothing landed.
"We did a fairly decent job of reporting things (during Reagan's campaigns), like his saying that trees were the biggest source of pollution," Nelson said.
But "the personality of Ronald Reagan was able to ride up over the top" of critical coverage, Brokaw said.
Challenge From Audience
Among the sharpest exchanges involved audience members after several panel members said they believed neither a black nor a woman could be elected President yet in America.
Even if a black candidate were the best qualified and most charismatic candidate running, Nelson said he did not believe that candidate could win.
"I know a lot about racism in this country," said Nelson, who covered the civil rights movement for the Atlanta Constitution and The Times, and "my honest opinion is . . . this still is predominantly a white society, and there is a lot of racism in it."
Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) then rose and asked whether such statements didn't influence how the press covered the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign.
"I guess the fact that we come to conclusions about any candidate has something to do with the questions we ask," Nelson answered.
Then Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden rose to ask if there wasn't "an inherent danger" in journalists making such statements.
'Responsibility With Power'
The media are so powerful, said Holden, "to say that to white kids and black kids . . . there is a certain responsibility that goes along with that power.
"There were those who said Tom Bradley could not be mayor of Los Angeles, and he's mayor today," Holden said.
Mondale, who earlier in the forum had agreed he didn't think a black could become President, said he treated Jackson in 1984 with "special respect and dignity" because of "the historic significance" of Jackson's candidacy.