CBS News Still Covering for Ronald Reagan?

In his new book, Ron Reagan says he saw early signs of Alzheimer’s disease in his father, Ronald Reagan, while the late president was still in the White House. When he said as much on ABC‘s 20/20 last Friday (1/14/11), he infuriated many on the right, including his older brother Michael Reagan.

Over the weekend, the older Reagan son took to Twitter, writing over the course of several messages, “My brother seems to want [to] sell out his father to sell books…. My father did not suffer from Alzheimer’s in the ’80s…. Ron, my brother, was an embarrassment to my father when he was alive and today he became an embarrassment to his mother.”

Such angry denials in the supposed defense of his father’s honor (it’s apparently shameful to have Alzheimer’s) garnered Michael Reagan much media attention, including an appearance on Fox‘s Hannity (1/17/11) where he denounced his brother, claiming “there’s absolutely no evidence” that his father’s Alzheimer’s began while he was still president.

On CBS‘s Early Show (1/17/11), Michael Reagan repeated his denials. But what was most noteworthy about the CBS interview wasn’t what Michael Reagan said, but what CBS journalist Erica Hill did not say.

In 1986, CBS‘s outgoing White House correspondent Leslie Stahl went to the White House to say goodbye to Reagan before moving on to another beat. She failed to report her dramatic observations at the time, a notable omission in itself, but recounted them in a 1999 book. As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen wrote about Stahl’s belated findings at the time:

In her new book Reporting Live, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl writes that she and other reporters suspected that Reagan was “sinking into senility” years before he left office. She writes that White House aides “covered up his condition”–and journalists chose not to pursue it.

Stahl describes a particularly unsettling encounter with Reagan in the summer of 1986: her “final meeting” with the President, typically a chance to ask a few parting questions for a “going-away story.” But White House press secretary Larry Speakes made her promise not to ask anything.

Although she’d covered Reagan for years, the glazed-eyed and fogged-up President “didn’t seem to know who I was,” writes Stahl. For several moments as she talked to him in the Oval Office, a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize anyone else was in the room. Meanwhile, Speakes was literally shouting instructions to the president, reminding him to give Stahl White House souvenirs.

Panicking at the thought of having to report on that night’s news that “the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet,” Stahl was relieved that Reagan soon reemerged into alertness, recognized her and chatted coherently with her husband, a screenwriter. “I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.”

Stahl wasn’t the only reporter to hold back. Nor were her bosses at CBS the only ones to pressure journalists to soften their coverage of Reagan, both of his policies and his person.

So CBS News failed to mention Stahl’s dramatic story in 1986–and failed to mention it again in 2011.

UPDATE: Mother Jones‘ David Corn talks to Lesley Stahl about why she didn’t report on Reagan’s mental condition at the time.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.