mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Ronald Reagan: Beloved by the Media

Ronald Reagan lived a charmed life in many respects, and none more so
than in his relationship with the American news media. Their adoring
post-mortem coverage was completely in keeping with how they treated
Reagan during virtually his entire presidency. Indeed, Reagan’s
accomplishments as president are impossible to understand without
recognizing the way he and his advisers turned the American media,
especially television, into a national megaphone for his policies.

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Most obituaries of Reagan have noted the decisive role that public
relations played in his White House, and it’s true that the former
actor’s PR apparatus pioneered or perfected many of the news
management techniques now taken for granted by the U.S. press and
public alike. The media’s own complicity in the process has generally
gone unmentioned, however, perhaps because it is journalists who write
the obituaries. Although the Reagan White House did not shrink from
censoring news, most famously during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the
taming of the media during the Reagan years was mostly self-inflicted.

Reagan’s own advisers admitted as much. Reagan was called the Teflon
president because blame never stuck to him, an outcome reporterrs
attributed to his sunny personality. But David Gergen, the former
White House communications director, told me, A lot of [the teflon]
came from the press. They didn’t want to go after him that toughly.
Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post,
agreed: We have been fairer to Ronald Reagan than to any president
since I’ve been at the Post.

In On Bended Knee, a book about the press and Reagan based on
interviews with scores of journalists, news executives and
administration officials, I documented numerous cases of
self-censorship. The management of CBS News, allegedly the most
liberal of America’s TV networks, ordered its Washington bureau and in
particular White House correspondent Lesley Stahl to tone down
criticism of Reagan because ordinary Americans supposedly didn’t want
to hear it. At The New York Times, correspondent Raymond Bonner was
pulled off the Central America beat after his expose of a civilian
massacre by U.S.-trained forces angered administration officials and
their right-wing allies at The Wall Street Journal editorial page. A
camera crew for ABC News filmed troops on their way to Grenada and got
confirmation of the impending invasion from U.S. officials in the
region, but their executive producer in New York trusted an
off-the-record denial by the Pentagon more than he trusted his own
reporters and killed the story.

But the friendly coverage of Reagan usually had less dramatic
explanations. One reason was technical: Reagan and his PR apparatus
knew how to get their desired message across while satisfying the
media’s appetite for interesting stories and appealing visuals. The
apparatus understood the value of repetition— in an
information-saturated society, only messages that get repeated can
pierce the static and register on the public consciousness—and they
pursued it with discipline and skill. Reagan’s PR was planned months
in advance and fine-tuned every morning in meetings that set the line
of the day that the administration’s spokesman would duly repeat to
reporters. The settings of the president’s public appearances were
carefully controlled so he stood before flattering backdrops and too
far away for reporters to ask questions.

A second, more profound source of the friendly coverage was
ideological. In the United States, the media shape mass opinion but
tend to reflect elite opinion, and most of the nation’s elite either
supported or were afraid to criticize Reagan. This was true not only
of the executives who employed the journalists covering Reagan but
also of most Democrats in Washington. Because the doctrine of
objectivity prevents American reporters from saying the sky is blue
without citing an official source, the reporters look to the
opposition party for quotes and perspectives to counter the White
House’s claims. The coverage of any president therefore tends to be
only as critical as the opposition party is. The failure of Democrats
to criticize Reagan meant he faced relatively uncritical coverage
(just as Republicans’ aggressiveness later led to relatively tough
coverage of Bill Clinton). This dynamic was especially helpful to
Reagan on foreign policy, where Democrats feared that any criticizing
would make them look insufficiently tough. Thus when Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally halted nuclear testing and invited
Reagan to do the same, the halt went unreported in the United States
until Gorbachev extended it a second and third time, when it was
finally mentioned but dismissed by ABC News correspondent Sam
Donaldson as nothing but propaganda.

In the American system of checks and balances, it is not the media’s
job to be for or against any president, but it is their job to make
the reality, rather than the spin, of the president’s policies clear
so citizens can intelligently decide whether to support them. This,
the American news media largely failed to do during the Reagan years.
Ronald Reagan was no mere media creation, a puppet who delivered lines
on behalf of backstage handlers. He was a canny politician and gifted
leader who intuitively understood the political power of the media and
exploited it to the fullest. He had a clear vision of where he wanted
to take the country and he communicated it with optimism, conviction
and humility, which allowed him to reach beyond his right-wing base
and gain support from the middle third of the electorate without whom
no American president can govern successfully.

Reagan went on to transform the underlying assumptions of American
politics so decisively that his anti-government, pro-market views
still dominate policymaking a generation later. His deregulation of
broadcasting gave rise to today’s monopolized media industry, while
his attacks on the supposed bias of the press has journalists bending
over backward to prove they’re not liberals. Because he changed the
world so profoundly, Reagan will be remembered as one of the two or
three most important presidents of the 20th century. But he could he
have accomplished none of this without the American media, which
having glorified him in life have now deified him in death.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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