Jun
09
2004

Reagan: Media Myth and Reality

June 9, 2004

As the media spend the week memorializing Ronald Reagan, journalists are redefining the former president's life and accomplishments with a stream of hagiographies that frequently skew the facts and gloss over scandal and criticism.

Reagan's Popularity

"Ronald Reagan was the most popular president ever to leave office," explained ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas (6/6/04). "His approval ratings were higher than any other at the end of his second term." Though the claim was repeated by many news outlets, it is not true; Bill Clinton's approval ratings when he left office were actually higher than Reagan's, at 66 percent versus Reagan's 63 percent (Gallup, 1/10-14-01). Franklin Delano Roosevelt also topped Reagan with a 66 percent approval rating at the time of his death in office after three and a half terms.

In general, Reagan's popularity during his two terms tends to be overstated. The Washington Post 's lead article on June 6 began by declaring him "one of the most popular presidents of the 20th Century," while ABC 's Sam Donaldson announced, "Through travesty, triumph and tragedy, the president enjoyed unprecedented popularity." The Chicago Tribune (6/6/04) wrote that "his popularity with the electorate was deep and personal... rarely did his popularity dip below 50 percent; it often exceeded 70 percent, an extraordinarily high mark."

But a look at Gallup polling data brings a different perspective. Through most of his presidency, Reagan did not rate much higher than other post-World War II presidents. And during his first two years, Reagan's approval ratings were quite low. His 52 percent average approval rating for his presidency places him sixth out of the past ten presidents, behind Kennedy (70 percent), Eisenhower (66 percent), George H.W. Bush (61 percent), Clinton (55 percent), and Johnson (55 percent). His popularity frequently dipped below 50 percent during his first term, plummeted to 46 percent during the Iran-Contra scandal, and never exceeded 68 percent. (By contrast, Clinton's maximum approval rating hit 71 percent.)

Some in the media similarly emphasized Reagan's likeability. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asserted (6/6/04), "You could hate his policies, but it was hard not to like Ronald Reagan." But Reagan's "likeability" numbers did not score much higher than other modern presidents, including Jimmy Carter. (For more on Reagan polling myths, see: Extra! , 3-4/89 )

No Time for Critical Voices

Mainstream media have relied heavily on Republicans and former Reagan officials to tell the story of Reagan and his accomplishments, which results in a decidedly one-sided version of events. A June 7 article in the New York Times on Reagan's impact claimed that Reagan "was almost always popular and, many now say, usually right." The article stated that "Reagan lived long enough to enable many of his old lieutenants, and some more dispassionate chroniclers as well, to argue that he had also been right on some of the bigger questions of his time."

Six of the eight sources the article quoted were former Reagan staffers or Republicans, one was longtime Reagan devotee Margaret Thatcher, and one was University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, who gave no argument that Reagan was "right" about anything. No other "dispassionate chroniclers" were quoted. Should readers be surprised that Reagan's friends and former colleagues still think he was right?

Television news has displayed an even more pronounced reliance on Reagan's Republican admirers. The Sunday morning shows (6/6/04) almost exclusively featured Republicans; former Reagan chief of staff James Baker appeared on all three networks, as well as Fox and CNN . Fox News Sunday (6/6/04) featured, in addition to Baker, current national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Sheila Tate, former press secretary for Nancy Reagan. MSNBC 's June 6 Hardball program featured Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Republican representatives David Dreier and Chris Cox, and Reagan strategist Richard Wirthlin.

Interviewing Reagan's admirers may have provided an intimate view of the former president, but it yielded virtually no acknowledgment of his flaws. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, when questioned by CNN 's Anderson Cooper (6/6/04) to name Reagan's greatest weakness or failing, responded, "I'm not going to criticize the President. And even if I wanted to, I would never do it on an occasion such as this. We should be grateful that the world was a better place because of Ronald Reagan's presidency."

Even when potentially critical voices were included, the tendency was to soften any disagreements over Reagan's policy. On NPR 's Morning Edition (6/7/04), Susan Stamberg interviewed Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher along with Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Clearly, though, this was no time for disagreement, as evidenced by one of Stamberg's questions to Begala: "You once famously said that politics is show business for ugly people. Ronald Reagan makes a liar out of you. He was an extremely handsome, attractive man." Begala's response: "Boy, was he."

Reagan's Legacy

Reagan's influence over world politics and the direction of the Republican Party were important aspects of the media's Reagan tributes. But more often than not, the more controversial aspects of Reagan's legacy were either downplayed or recast as footnotes.

Time magazine (6/14/04) cheered that "the Reagan years were another of those hinges upon which history sometimes turns. On one side, a wounded but still vigorous liberalism with its faith in government as the answer to almost every question. On the other, a free market so triumphant-- even after the tech bubble burst-- that we look first to 'growth,' not government, to solve most problems." As NBC 's John Hockenberry put it (6/5/04), "The Reagan revolution imagined the unimaginable. When poverty and welfare were at crisis levels in the 1980s, Reagan declared war on government and turned his back on the welfare state." The long-term impact of cuts in social spending, gutted environmental protections and other casualties of Reagan's "war on government" were relegated to passing mentions.

Reagan's fervent support for right-wing governments in Central America was one of the defining foreign policies of his administration, and the fact that death squads associated with those governments murdered tens of thousands of civilians surely must be included in any reckoning of Reagan's successes and failures.

But a search of major U.S. newspapers in the Nexis news database turns up the phrase "death squad" only five times in connection with Reagan in the days following his death--twice in commentaries (Philadelphia Inquirer , 6/6/04; Chicago Tribune , 6/8/04) and twice in letters to the editor (San Francisco Chronicle , 6/8/04; L.A. Times , 6/8/04). Only one news article found in the search (L.A. Times , 6/6/04) considered the death squads an important enough part of Reagan's legacy to be worth mentioning. The three broadcast networks, CNN and Fox didn't mention death squads at all, according to Nexis. Nor were any references found in the transcripts of the broadcast networks to the fact that Reagan's policy of supporting Islamicist insurgents against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan led to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The Reagan administration's friendly policy towards Saddam Hussein was also a neglected media topic. During the Reagan years, the U.S. offered significant support to Iraq, including weapons components, military intelligence, and even some of the ingredients for manufacturing biological weapons like anthrax (Newsweek , 9/23/02).

The rare opportunities for critical reflection about Reagan's policies were turned into additional evidence of his strength, as when Time magazine (6/14/04) suggested, "Even when his views were most intransigent-- when he wondered out loud whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist or failed for nearly all of his presidency to speak the word AIDS even once-- Reagan gave Reaganism a human face." Time followed that strange assessment with a comment from Bush adviser Karl Rove: "He made us sunny optimists... His was a conservatism of laughter and openness and community."

Journalists seemed determined to show that any criticisms of Reagan could be turned upside down. As Dan Rather explained on CBS 's 60 Minutes (6/6/04), "The literal-minded were forever troubled by his tendency to sometimes confuse life with the movies. But he understood, like very few leaders before or since, the power of myth and storytelling. In his films and his political life, Ronald Reagan stood at the intersection where dreams and reality meet, and with a wink and a one-liner, always held out hope for a happy ending."

Even Reagan's contradictions were somehow construed as strong points. As Time put it (6/14/04), "So great was Reagan's victory in making his preoccupations into enduring themes of the national conversation that it may not matter that his record didn't always match his rhetoric. He insisted, for instance, that a balanced budget was one of his priorities. But by the time Reagan left office, a combination of lower tax revenues and sharply higher spending for defense had sent the deficit through the roof."

The Iran-Contra scandal, which loomed too large to ignore, was often written off by journalists. "As we look back today, it's like just a speck in the eight years of his presidency," explained CNN 's Judy Woodruff (6/7/04). Meet the Press host Tim Russert (6/6/04) showed a clip of Reagan's famous response to the scandal, in which he stated, "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." Russert described this tortured evasion of culpability as "very believable."

Whatever reporters made of Iran-Contra, though, Reagan's triumph over such problems was more important than the incidents themselves. CBS reporter Anthony Mason (6/6/04) explained: "The deficit doubled during the Reagan years. His second term was scarred by the Iran Contra scandal, but he never lost that common touch.... Ronald Reagan had an uncanny ability to make Americans feel good about themselves." That bond with American citizens remained front-and-center throughout the media. As CBS anchor Dan Rather put it (6/5/04), Reagan "was the great communicator, yes. But he was also a master at communicating greatness. He understood that, as he once put it, 'History is a ribbon always unfurling,' and managed to convey his vision in terms both simple and poetic. And so he was able to act as a conduit to connect us to who we had been and who we could be."

Reagan and the Media

The overwhelmingly positive coverage of Reagan struck some as a significant change. As Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted (6/7/04): "The uplifting tone with which journalists are eulogizing Ronald Reagan is obscuring a central fact of his presidency: He had a very contentious relationship with the press." Others would certainly disagree with Kurtz's assessment-- Mark Heertsgaard's 1988 book, "On Bended Knee: The Press & the Reagan Presidency," for example, characterizes the press corps as being basically uncritical during the Reagan years.

In any event, it would be hard to argue that current coverage of Reagan carries any lingering traces of that formerly "contentious" relationship. If anything, some reporters now seem to think that the main lesson learned from the Reagan years was not to be critical. As ABC 's Sam Donaldson put it (6/4/04), "Reporters over the years made the mistake of saying, 'Well, he made this mistake, he made this mistake. He got that fact wrong.' The American public got it right. It didn't matter."

Finally, Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (USA Today , 6/7/04) gave an interesting take on what he acknowledged were "almost completely uncritical" media reports on Reagan: "For networks that are accused of being liberal, this is a way for them to show that they are fair." One would hope that such an overwhelmingly uncritical assessment of important political and historical matters would not meet anyone's definition of "fair" journalism.