On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency
ON BENDED KNEE: THE PRESS AND THE REAGAN PRESIDENCY presents a history and an indictment of the relations between Ronald Reagan’s White House and the major U.S. news media. Based on more than 175 interviews with most of the key figures in the White House and the press, the book exposes one of the great scandals of 20th century American politics–how the press, both through government manipulation and voluntary self-censorship, abdicated its responsibility to report on what was really going on during Reagan’s eight years as president. Indeed, as author Mark Hertsgaard reveals, there were many instances of network and press executives at CBS, The New York Times, ABC and elsewhere, stifling their own reporters’ coverage of such stories as Reaganomics, the invasion of Grenada and the Iran-Contra Affair.
ON BENDED KNEE was published in 1988 (the book mentions the on-going Presidential campaign of that year, but seems blissfully unaware of its conclusion), and the main feature separating this political book from political books of today is that there appears to have been actual research put into it. While some modern books seem content to rest their conclusions on the backs of half-remembered interviews on CNN or from rumors they gleamed off the Internets, Hertsgaard interviewed over 175 persons. Persons from both the press and the Reagan Administration.
It’s these interviews that drive the book. Hertsgaard’s technique is to proceed chronologically, letting the quotes build up an individual story, and then inserting his own analysis to show how these specific events fall into an overall pattern. Hertsgaard spends time analyzing both the construction/distribution of the Reagan “message” and how that message was parsed by the media. The pattern seems eerily similar to the post-9/11 coverage of today’s government and those parallels will seem obvious and ominous.
I found this to be a very convincing argument. Hertsgaard obviously has a point of view (negative on both the Reagan policies and on the press coverage they received), but he’s very logical and meticulous in laying out his case. People looking for how the Reagan people played puppet-master with the press may be disappointed, as the overwhelming attention is placed on the self-censorship that took place within the press itself with little need of any influence from the Administration. However, he does take some time to show how the Reagan Public Relations circle manipulated news and images to place their man in the best light possible.
It’s interesting to read about the birth of many awful aspects of the media which were new at the time, but which are now depressingly ever-present. The author looks at the Presidential Election of 1984 and points out how the media focused more attention on the horse-race, on the latest polls and on the question of who will win at the expense of covering where each candidate actually stood on the issues and whether those positions were wise or foolish. Hertsgaard correctly points out how such attention on trivia rather than issues does a disservice to the audience and, ultimately, the politicians themselves.
Many of the book’s subjects are still hot topics of political conversation today. The blurring of news and entertainment. The fact that more news outlets are owned by fewer and fewer companies and individuals. The timidity of a press, terrified at the thought of doing anything that might be considered “liberal”. Still important issues, this is where many of them had their beginnings.
Unfortunately, such reporting is commonplace nowadays. I’d love to see a follow-up from Hertsgaard written today, analyzing the trends he first noted here. It would probably be a depressing and predictable read, but it would have to be an important one. ON BENDED KNEE may be discussing events of twenty years ago, but the points he raises still have resonance today.
— Andrew McCaffrey, Amazon.com, Aug 2005
From Library Journal
During the Reagan years, the White House Press Corps has “functioned less as an independent than as a palace court press,” according to Hertsgaard. Basing his arguments on hundreds of interviews with important administration leaders and reporters, Hertsgaard convincingly portrays the White House press as noncritical and sycophantic. As members of the same power elite that they write about, White House reporters more often than not agree with the President’s policies. In addition, they have been reluctant to strongly criticize Reagan for fear of being cut off from the flow of information and of losing their privileged status.
— Karl Helicher, Wolfsohn, Memorial Lib., King of Prussia, Pa. 1988
On Bended Knee is currently out-of-print.
Second-hand copies can often be found through resellers like: