Reagan and the Media: A Love Story
What is it about Republicans and their distrust of the mainstream media? As most news outlets are portraying the dead Ronald Reagan as an iconic and heroic figure, the Pew Research Center has released a survey that shows GOPers trust the major media organizations much less than Democrats. Only 15 to 17 percent of Republicans believe the network news shows are credible. Even Fox News Channel is trusted by only 29 percent of Republicans; CNN is trusted by 26 percent of this band. About a third of Democrats said they have faith in the networks, and 45 percent said they consider CNN credible. (Only one in four Democrats considered Fox a trustworthy news source.) The Pew report notes, "Republicans have become more distrustful of virtually all major media outlets over the past four years, while Democratic evaluations of the news media have been mostly unchanged."
But doesn't the current Reaganmania in the media undercut the old conservative bromide that the media are dishonest bastions filled to the brim with liberals seeking to undermine Republicans? On NPR, interviewer Susan Stamberg eagerly participated in the rah-rah and raved that Reagan was an "extremely handsome" and "physically vibrant guy," saying little about his policies. CNN's Judy Woodruff repeatedly referenced Reagan's "extraordinary optimism" and reported that "everyone admired" his marriage with Nancy Reagan. Crossfire initially booked only Reagan friends, aides, and admirers. The Washington Post has devoted far more inches to the man than his policies. There have been some voices of gentle criticism. But mostly it has been a gushfest, as if the divisive and bitter battles that occurred on Reagan's watch -- over his trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy, his contra war in Central America, his severe cutbacks in social programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, his effort to expand the nuclear arsenal, his firing of 13,000 air traffic controllers, his defense of the apartheid regime of South Africa -- never happened. (For a cheat sheet on the worst of the Reagan years, see this piece I wrote in 1998.) As this week's lead editorial of The Nation (drafted by yours truly) notes, "It's as if Gore Vidal coined the phrase 'United States of Amnesia' for the moment of Ronald Reagan's death."
Much of the media coverage accepted and promoted -- as fact -- the right's favorite mantras about Reagan: He won the Cold War, he renewed patriotism, he was a lover of freedom and democracy. (For a challenge to that last point, see my piece at TomPaine.com.) There was little in the way of counterbalance. His role in the demise of the Soviet Union remains a question of historical debate, yet he has been depicted as the man who brought the Commies to their knees. Even Democrats got into the act. Senator Barbara Boxer of California praised Reagan because America "regained respect" in the world during his presidency. (She was trying to make a not-too-subtle point about the current occupant of the White House, but she should go back and check what she had to say about Reagan's foreign policy in the 1980s.)
Strong. Optimistic. Visionary. Reagan was described in warm, fuzzy and glorious terms. In the coverage that I've seen, there was little discussion of his less positive features, such as his not infrequent flights from reality. While commander-in-chief, he commented that submarine-based nuclear missiles once launched could be recalled. They cannot. Of the brutal military in El Salvador, he said, "We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador." (These forces -- backed and trained by the US government -- massacred 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, and the Reagan administration denied this mass murder happened.)
Justifying his constructive engagement policy with the racist government of South Africa, he said, "Can we abandon this country that has stood beside us in every war we've ever fought?" The leaders of the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa had been Nazi sympathizers. He also claimed that segregation had been eliminated in South Africa -- when blacks still did not have the right to vote and were banned from certain areas and facilities.
Reagan maintained that real earnings were increasing in the United States when they were decreasing. In 1983, he said, "There is today in the United States as much forest as there was when Washington was at Valley Forge." But the US Forest Service estimated only about 30 percent of forest lands of 1775 still existed 208 years later. He once told the story of a brave WWII bomber commander who stayed behind with an injured subordinate and went down with the plane, noting that this commander was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News checked and found no such event had occurred -- except in a 1944 movie. In 1985, Reagan quipped, "I've been told that in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom." There is; it's svoboda. In the 1987 book, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills notes that on two occasions, Reagan told visitors to the White House that when he was in the military he had filmed the Nazi concentration camps. That was false. He had served in Los Angeles, where he had made training films.
Even Reagan's devotees could not avoid the obvious. In Triumph of Politics, David Stockman, Reagan's White House budget director, writes of one meeting with the boss: "What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent man go on in this embarrassing way. I buried my head in my plate."
But now Reagan is hailed as a decisive and passionate leader. Few of the examples above are included in the glowing media coverage. How do the media-bashers of the right account for that? On NPR, the subject of Reagan's drifts from reality was politely raised by Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan during an interview with David Gergen, who was communications director for Reagan. Gergen's response was illuminating. Here's the exchange.
Conan: Hmm. For a while, the press used to keep a running record of his malapropisms, his mistakes and things that he'd gotten wrong, facts he'd remembered from the movies that he presented as real. After a while, they stopped because people didn't care.
Gergen: Well, that's right. You know, I was one of the people that had to keep a total on those things and he'd ask me to go check them out. He had said during -- after he became president, he said, 'I want you to go look up these various things that I said that people accuse me as being wrong and let's get the record straight.' So I went and looked up -- you know, he said during the  campaign that trees kill more people than -- pollution from trees kills more people than -- from pollution from automobiles. Well, as you can imagine, the press had a field day with that. They all went crazy and he said that in New Hampshire ... And there were a lot of things like that. You know, "50 taxes on a loaf of bread," and there were not 50 taxes on a loaf of bread. As to the pollution issue, there is a question about -- it's a little bit like cows: Do cows cause pollution? There are some issues that scientists raise, but of course, trees by and large are very good for us.
I came to defend him, Neal, on the basis on some of these things, that Reagan was telling larger truths, that -- I went out and defended him once, you know, 'You've got to remember the importance of parables in life. Don't try to use every one of these stories as an absolute truth to see them in parables." And I think that's the way the country saw him. I got a lot of grief for saying "parables." I got attacked by some people. But I think the country did see them as sort of stories that pointed to larger truths rather than stories that were necessarily, you know, grounded in a day-to-day reality. I mean, he remembered things out of movies he thought actually happened.I'm not going to second-guess Conan, who did not follow up on this point, but isn't one obvious question: What was the "larger truth" that was served by Reagan's claim that trees cause pollution? How did it enhance public discourse by making false claims about the amount of taxation levied on a loaf of bread? Parables? Imagine if during the 2000 campaign, Al Gore, caught in factual inaccuracies, had defended himself by saying he was speaking in parables. How would the media have covered that?
It is no fun to kick the dead. And I am not suggesting that journalists, anchors and media commentators do so -- especially when the man in the casket was beloved by so many. But it is not unreasonable -- or disrespectful -- to have an honest discussion about Reagan and his legacy and to acknowledge (and explain why) he was hardly a hero to all. The media too often gave him a free ride when he was president (see Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency), and that ride has continued this week.