Waiting for a bus to the Reagan library. All the articles on the page she is looking at are on guess-who. (AP)
Ronald Reagan died June 5th. Anybody think the early coverage was a little distorted? A little overdone?
COMMENTARY | June 11, 2004
First-day stories reflected more myth than reality, leaving out or burying anything unpleasant. It's not as though editors didn't have time to prepare.
By John Hanrahan
Q. We know a lot of people really liked Reagan and his policies. But shouldn't we also report on people who didn’t like his policies, and why?
Q. We have all kinds of commentators commending Reagan for making it "morning in America" again, but should we be so sweeping in our assessment? Weren’t a lot of people made miserable?
Q. And what about polls: Did they show people thinking it was morning in America?
These obvious questions and other important ones either weren't asked or answers to them were buried in the massive, bandwagon-type print and TV coverage in the first days after Ronald Reagan’s death.
What we had were the news media copying to an extent the recent Hollywood movie, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." In the movie, all memories of a relationship between a man and a woman were erased from their brains. The difference is that in the early Reagan coverage, positive memories survived and only unpleasant or controversial memories were erased or glossed over.
Print and broadcast outlets had an orgy. Some devoted almost all their space or time to glowing accounts. Time Magazine gave more than 40 pages to Reagan. Pretty much across the board, what was presented in the mainstream media in the first days was myth-tinged, portraying him as an overwhelmingly popular president, beloved by citizens from Main Street to Wall Street, someone who made us all feel good about ourselves. This rosy picture was certainly true for some people but woefully inadequate in capturing a fuller, and more accurate, assessment of Reagan and his presidency.
The lopsided initial coverage did a disservice to those who lived through the Reagan years and who have their own, often negative, memories. It especially did a disservice to citizens who are too young to remember Reagan’s presidency and who were, in the days following his death, probably getting their first serious exposure to in-depth news about him.
Some editorial writers and columnists did call attention to a few of Reagan’s failures and controversies, but almost all the news pages and TV reports ignored or buried them at the outset. Given the deluge of copy, that was quite a feat.
After a few days there were some late-arriving exceptions to the lack of criticism. For example, on the fourth day after his death, The Washington Post had a front page story reporting numerous domestic and foreign issues for which Reagan had drawn fire. Included were his insensitivity to racially-related issues, the Iran-contra scandal, his administration's covert assistance to Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with Iran, and the gutting and cutting of social programs.
Even this article left out one of the major controversies of Reagan’s eight years in office: his support for repressive Central American regimes, whose military and/or right-wing death squads killed tens of thousands of people in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. (The Post subsequently reported on Reagan’s Central American involvement in a fifth-day story.)
The New York Times, in a massive first-day article, gave a lot of space to the Iran-contra scandal, but kissed off the rest of Central America in one sentence: "In El Salvador, the Reagan administration supported the government against a Marxist insurgency" — a gross oversimplification that omits the highly controversial nature of this support at the time. On domestic issues, the Times did report in a fourth-day story that Reagan had drawn fire during his presidency for his policies on AIDS, civil rights, reproductive rights and poverty.
Readers and listeners around the country would have been better served if major news outlets had carried thorough news reports in the first day or two after Reagan died, when people’s attention to his death was probably at its highest level.
Editors assigning stories on Reagan should have been ready from the outset to achieve an accurate and balanced picture. This wasn't exactly a deadline situation; people in the news business had years to prepare, and to be sure the right questions were dealt with. Here are a few that come to mind:
Q. We know a lot of people really liked Reagan and his policies. But shouldn't we also report on people who didn’t like his policies, and why? Hint: African-Americans and other minority voters, civil rights and human rights activists, environmentalists, labor unions, Pentagon spending critics, nuclear freeze activists and critics of Reagan’s record budget deficits. During the Iran-contra scandal, a majority of the American people, according to polls at the time, believed —correctly — that Reagan was lying to them about not trading arms for hostages.
Q. We have all kinds of commentators commending Reagan for making it "morning in America" again, but should we be so sweeping in our assessment? Weren’t a lot of people made miserable and apprehensive by his policies that effectively tried to undo President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? It was hardly "morning" for those thousands of AIDS victims whom the Reagan administration largely ignored, or the fired air traffic controllers, or lower-income people who suffered as Reagan’s policies shredded the social program safety net. Can't we get quotes from some of those people?
Q. Can we find any data to support the notion that it was morning in America? Perspective on this may be available through leading survey organizations, such as the National Opinion Research Center's general social survey, or studies by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. In one measure, trust in the government in Washington to do what's right, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Americans to be as skeptical of Reagan's government in 1985, after his landslide re-election victory, as they were of Richard Nixon's during the depths of the Vietnam War and Watergate in 1974.
Q. Can’t we manage to say something in depth about the Reagan administration’s support for repressive regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador? The controversial U.S. involvement in Central America was one of the big news stories during the Reagan presidency but — aside from the Iran-contra scandal involving Nicaragua — the issue received scant news media attention in the early days following Reagan’s death. Notable exceptions included Amy Goodman’s "Democracy Now!" program on Pacifica radio (not exactly mainstream), and an on-line article for consortiumnews.com by veteran reporter and author Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-contra scandal stories in the 1980s.
Q. What about Reagan’s popularity we’ve heard so much about in the days following his death? As for the public's view of Reagan, during the course of his presidency opinion polls showed growing numbers thinking he cared more about the wealthy than poor or middle class people. Majorities doubted his word, not only about Iran-contra but about plans or actions in El Salvador and Lebanon as well. Overall, his approval ratings were about on a par with Bill Clinton, a president who was impeached.
Questions like these are obvious, and there are many more. It couldn't have been easy to avoid dealing with them.
John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations. He is now on special assignment for Nieman Watchdog.