excerpts from the book
On Bended Knee
The Press and the Reagan
by Mark Hertsgaard
Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988
We have been kinder to President Reagan than any President that
I can remember since I've been at the Post."
So said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive
editor of The Washington Post, some four months before the November
1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan. Three years later, after the
Iran-Contra affair had shattered Mr. Reagan's previous image of
invincibility, I asked the legendary editor if he still stood
by his statement. He did. Stressing that this was "all totally
subconscious," Bradlee explained that when Ronald Reagan
came to Washington in 1980, journalists at the Post sensed that
"here comes a really true conservative.... And we are known-though
I don't think justifiably-as the great liberals. So, [we thought]
we've got to really behave ourselves here. We've got to not be
arrogant, make every effort to be informed, be mannerly, be fair.
And we did this. I suspect in the process that this paper and
probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride,
but they didn't use the same standards on him that they used on
Carter and on Nixon."
Even with all that eventually went wrong-the
Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, the seemingly endless
series of criminal investigations of former top White House officials-the
overall press coverage of the Reagan administration was extraordinarily
positive. It is rare indeed for public officials to express satisfaction
with their press coverage-in the words of NBC News White House
correspondent Andrea Mitchell, "Politicians always say they
want a fair press, when what they really want is a positive press"-but
the men in charge of media and public relations in the Reagan
White House were, almost unanimously, quite pleased with how their
President was treated.
James Baker, White House chief of staff
during the first term and Secretary of the Treasury during the
second, told me, "There were days and times and events we
might have some complaint about, [but] on balance and generally
speaking, I don't think we had anything to complain about in terms
of first-term press coverage. "
David Gergen, former White House director
of communications, confirmed shortly after leaving the administration
in January 1984 that President Reagan and most of his advisers
had come to believe that the basic goal of their approach to the
news media-"to correct the imbalance of power with the press
so that the White House will once again achieve a 'margin of safety'
"- had finally been attained.
Most expansive of all was Michael Deaver,
the first-term deputy chief of staff and a virtual surrogate son
to the Reagans. Deaver wrote in his memoirs that up until the
Iran-contra scandal broke, "Ronald Reagan enjoyed the most
generous treatment by the press of any President in the postwar
era. He knew it, and liked the distinction."
How Reagan managed to elude critical news
coverage for so long baffled many political observers, not least
news executives and journalists themselves.
"I don't know how to explain why
he hasn't been as vulnerable to the onslaught of the American
press as some previous Presidents; it is a hard subject for me,"
said ABC News executive vice president David Burke. Agreeing with
Ben Bradlee about the extraordinary kindness of Reagan's press
coverage, he continued, "I wonder why. It isn't because he
intimidates us. It isn't that he blows us away with logic. So
what the hell is it?"
Burke, a former top aide to Senator Edward
Kennedy, finally settled on a variation of the Great Communicator
theory, long favored by journalists and White House aides alike
for explaining Reagan's positive public image. The key, in this
view, was Reagan himself. His personal gifts-an amiable personality,
sincere manner, perfect vocal delivery and photogenic persona-made
him the television era equivalent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin;
he played a tune so gay and skipped ahead so cheerily that others
could not help but trust and follow him. To attack such a man
~ was unthinkable. "You just can't get the stomach to go
after the guy," explained Burke. "It's not a popularity
thing, it's not that we're afraid of getting the public mad at
us. I think it is a perception that the press has in general of
Reagan, that he is a decent man. He is not driven by insecurities,
by venality, by conspiracies and back-room tactics."
Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor
of the NBC Nightly News, also felt that Reagan got "a more
positive press than he deserves," a feat for which Brokaw
credited the White House staff as well as the President. "In
part it goes back to who he is," said Brokaw, "and his
strong belief in who he is. He's not trying to reinvent himself
every day as Jimmy Carter was.... Ronald Reagan reminds me of
a lot of CEOs I know who run big companies and spend most of their
time on their favorite charitable events or lunch with their pals
and kind of have a broad-based philosophy of how they want their
companies run. Reagan's got that kind of broad-based philosophy
about how he wants the government run, and he's got all these
killers who are willing and able to do that for him."
The "killers" primarily responsible
for generating positive press coverage of Reagan were Michael
Deaver and David Gergen, and if they did not exactly get away
with murder, they came pretty close. Deaver, Gergen and their
colleagues effectively rewrote the rules of presidential image-making.
On the basis of a sophisticated analysis of the American news
media-how it worked, which buttons to push when, what techniques
had and had not worked for previous administrations-they introduced
a new model for packaging the nation's top politician and using
the press to sell him to the American public. Their objective
was not simply to tame the press but to transform it into an unwitting
mouthpiece of the government; it was one of Gergen's guiding assumptions
that the administration simply could not govern effectively unless
it could "get the right story out" through the "filter"
of the press.
The extensive public relations apparatus
assembled within the Reagan White House did most of its work out
of sight-in private White House meetings each morning to set the
"line of the day" that would later be fed to the press;
in regular phone calls to the television networks intended to
influence coverage of Reagan on the evening news; in quiet executive
orders imposing extraordinary new government secrecy measures,
including granting the FBI and CIA permission to infiltrate the
press. It was Mike Deaver's special responsibility to provide
a constant supply of visually attractive, prepackaged news stories-the
kind that network television journalists in particular found irresistible.
Of course, it helped enormously that the man being sold was an
ex-Hollywood actor. As James Lake, press secretary of the Reagan-Bush
campaign, acknowledged, Ronald Reagan was "the ultimate presidential
commodity . . . the right product."
The Reagan public relations model was
based on a simple observation, articulated to me by longtime Reagan
pollster Richard Wirthlin: "There's no question that how
the press reports [on] the President influences how people feel
about the President. People make up their minds on the basis of
what they see and hear about him, and the press is the conduit
through which they get a lot of their information." Because
the news media were the unavoidable intermediary between the President
and the public, Wirthlin, Deaver, Gergen, Baker and their colleagues
focused their talents on controlling to the maximum extent possible
what news reports said about the President and his policies. The
more influence they could exercise over how Reagan's policies
were portrayed in the press; the greater were the White House's
chances of implementing those policies without triggering widespread
disaffection or endangering Mr. Reagan's re-election chances.
To be sure, Reagan's was hardly the first
administration to establish a public relations apparatus within
the White House. But few, if any, administrations had exalted
news management to as central a role in the theory and practice
of governance as Reagan's did. Leslie Janka, a deputy White House
press secretary who resigned in protest after the administration
excluded the press from the Grenada invasion, went so far as to
say, "The whole thing was PR. This was a PR outfit that became
President and took over the country. And to the degree then to
which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget,
run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first,
last, and overarching activity was public relations."
What made relations with the press especially
vital to the success of Reagan's presidency was the fact that
much of his agenda was at odds with popular sentiment. On the
basic political issues f his day, Ronald Reagan was much farther
to the right than the majority of his fellow citizens. (Contrary
to the widely accepted conventional wisdom of the time, American
mass opinion in the late 1970s and early 1980s was not galloping
to the right. As political economists Thomas Ferguson and Joel
Rogers have demonstrated, public opinion was shifting, if anything,
slightly leftward during that period, with Reagan's policies themselves
apparently providing some of the impetus.)
Reagan's 1981 economic recovery program
(for example) combined significant cuts in social spending and
federal regulations with fantastic tax reductions aimed overwhelmingly
at the very wealthiest Americans. In the name of free enterprise,
the administration advocated a massive subsidy program for America's
corporations and rich citizens not an easy thing to sell to average
working- and middle-class Americans. Yet Reagan emerged from his
first presidential summer gloriously triumphant, with Capitol
Hill Democrats and Washington reporters alike convinced- falsely,
as it happened-that he was the most popular President in decades.
The Reagan model worked so well that the
relationship between the White House and the press will never
be the same again. Long after Ronald Reagan has left the White
House, the model of news management introduced during his tenure
will remain behind, shaping press coverage and therefore public
perception. Republican and Democratic candidates alike are relying
on elements of the Reagan model in their respective quests for
the presidency in 1988, and it is virtually certain to inform
the media strategy of whoever succeeds Reagan as President in
David Gergen was so proud of what the
Reagan apparatus accomplished that he told me it would be "worthwhile
to institutionalize some of the approaches Reagan has taken toward
press events, in order to make it work" for future Presidents.
Jody Powell, President Carter's press secretary, and a man who
knew a thing or two himself about manipulating the press, was
convinced that future administrations would indeed copy the Reagan
strategy of news management, but argued that the American people
would be the poorer for it.
"There are a lot of people going
to school on this administration," said Powell, "and
one of the lessons is that the press's bark is much worse than
its bite. They'll huff and puff around, but in the end you can
cut severely into the flow of information and manage it with a
much firmer hand than we were able or willing to do.... If you
as much as say to the administration, which is what the press
is doing, 'Look, you can do this and there's not a damn thing
we can do about it,' they're damn sure going to do it. It's too
much of a temptation for frail mortals to bear."
Understanding the Reagan propaganda operation
is essential if Americans are to make sense of what happened to
their country and their politics during the Reagan era. But there
is more to the story than slick skullduggery on the part of power-hungry
politicos. Precisely because the Reagan PR model seems destined
to become an enduring feature of presidential politics in this
country, it is crucial to examine how the American press responded
to it. After all, in the U.S. system, it is the job of the press
to find and present the truth despite officially erected obstacles.
As Tom Brokaw commented, "I can't point my finger at [the
Reagan White House]. I think they're doing what they need to do,
and if there's a failure, it's ultimately the press's failure."
"In a previous time, reporters may have viewed themselves
as outsiders. They didn't belong to the inner circle to the degree
they do now, when relatively well-paid reporters and government
officials can move in the same social circles," observed
ABC News Washington bureau chief George Watson. "I went to
a dinner party with a reporter [of ours] in early 1985 where there
was the Attorney General, the Israeli ambassador, a prominent
senator. That happens more than it used to. Today as never before
our reporters are part of the town's elite, which seems a reasonable
factor in explaining why there is less of an adversarial tone
in the coverage [of Washington]."
In a country where politics had increasingly become a contest
of images rather than ideas, there was a certain bizarre inevitability
about a B-grade movie star finally being elected President. Administration
officials usually played down Reagan's acting abilities, conceding
at most that his personality was what made him such a good salesman.
But in a not-for-attribution interview, one former White House
aide made a rare admission: "He's an actor. He's used to
being directed and produced. He stands where he is supposed to
and delivers his lines, he reads beautifully, he knows how to
wait for the applause line. You know how some guys are good salesmen
but can't ask the customers to give them the order? This guy is
good for asking for the order, and getting it."
If Reagan was the star, Mike Deaver was
the director who knew just what it took to inspire the best possible
performance from his man. Such relationships, at their best, are
a product of a certain delicate chemistry between the two individuals
involved, and thus are virtually impossible to replicate. After
leaving the White House, Deaver noticed the difference in Reagan's
public persona, particularly during his disastrous November 19,
1986, press conference about the administration's arms sales to
Iran. "He wasn't well prepared for that," he remarked.
"Particularly on an issue like that, the last thing you want
to do is brief him or cram him full of answers, because the answers
were all there. Reagan is basically a performer. What you really
need to do is what a director would do, and that is set the stage
and get his mind in the right position. He should have bounced
into that press conference. [Instead] he walked down that hall.
Somebody probably told him, 'Now, be serious tonight.' Absolutely
Perhaps Reagan's strongest communications
attribute was his image as a nice guy. "A lot of what we've
done [was] because of Ronald Reagan and his warm personality,"
observed Joanna Bistany. "You can get away with a lot, because
he can then come up and defuse the antagonism." And not just
among the public, one might add, but among the press. Although
the President harbored a certain condescension toward reporters-"He
thinks of the press as poor souls who can be saved by the redemption
of his superior knowledge," commented Reagan speechwriter
Kenneth Khachigian-his bantering friendliness toward them paid
"Jimmy Carter you felt sorry for,
but he was aloof and hard to get to know," said Susan Zirinsky.
"But Reagan always made you laugh. It was hard not to like
"I would agree that Reagan has gotten
the breaks in terms of press coverage," acknowledged Maynard
Parker, editor of Newsweek, "for the reason that most reporters
covering him genuinely like the man and find it difficult to be
as tough as they might like."
John Sears, Reagan's (and Nixon's) former
presidential campaign manager, thought that journalists' fondness
for Reagan was what encouraged gentle press coverage of the so-called
gaffe problem-the President's frequent practice of unburdening
himself of statements that were demonstrably false, silly or otherwise
politically unwise. "If Jimmy Carter were making these mistakes,
he would be treated much worse," said Sears. "The press
didn't like Carter on the level of a personal human being. But
they like Reagan, and this affects their intensity factor."
Mr. Reagan's personal strengths and abilities
were such that two of the closest observers of his political career
argued that the White House propaganda apparatus deserved but
marginal credit for his presidential achievements. "I don't
[think] the White House press apparatus has anything to do with
what Reagan has accomplished," declared Washington Post correspondent
Lou Cannon, who was widely acknowledged by colleagues and competitors
alike as the single most knowledgeable reporter about Reagan.
Cannon, who had covered Reagan since the beginning of his political
career in California, added, "Ronald Reagan was able to shift
the direction of the debate when he didn't have Mike Deaver and
he didn't have the White House.... The fact is that Reagan himself
is the guy who does this."
"One reason we were so good at [managing
news] is we had a candidate who just comes across a hell of a
lot better," explained Lyn Nofziger. "You could have
put the Reagan staff in there with Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter
still wouldn't have come out good. You can't make a silk purse
out of a sow's ear.... Ronald Reagan is the best candidate. I'm
not talking about ability to govern, but the best candidate from
the standpoint of understanding instinctively what you have to
do to get favorable coverage for the kind of media we have today-my
mother could have run his campaign and he'd still have been elected
President.... I don't mean to belittle Mike Deaver, he did a fine
job, but I would like to have seen him working with Ford or Carter
or Nixon and then come back and tell me."
In response, Deaver said that "90
percent of [Reagan's] success is the man himself," but he
maintained that the apparatus had nonetheless played a vital role:
"What we did was strategize for periods of time what we wanted
the story [about the administration] to be and [we then] created
visuals to go with that story. I don't think television coverage
will ever be the same. We really did something to change that.
"We would take a theme, which we
usually worked on for six weeks say, the economy," Deaver
explained. "The President would say the same thing, but we
had a different visual for every one of those stops. They see
the President out at an auto plant because imports are down and
American cars are up. They see the President at a high-tech plant
in Boston because high-tech means jobs. Pretty soon it begins
to soak in, pretty soon people begin to believe the economy is
One striking example of the way the White
House public relations machinery-from the Blair House strategists
down to press officers and event organizers-operated in nearly
perfect synchronization was the public relations blitz on the
theme of education that Deaver directed in 1983. In response to
polls indicating a two-to-one public disapproval of Reagan's cutbacks
in federal aid to education, the Blair House group ordered a communications
offensive that emphasized "excellence in education,"
merit pay for teachers and greater classroom discipline. The end
result was to reverse the polling figures to a two-to-one support
for Reagan, without the actual Reagan policy changing at all.
"The President himself made some
twenty-five-odd appearances on the issue of education," recalled
Knight-Ridder correspondent Saul Friedman. "They understood
that to shift the fulcrum of the debate, you have to do it with
repetition, which the President is very good at."
Repetition was necessary because, in a
modern electronic society, the messages that actually pierce the
static and register on people's consciousness are those which
are repeated over and over again. According to Deaver, this was
one requirement of his salesman's job that Reagan groused about.
"It used to drive the President crazy, because repetition
was so important," said Deaver. "He'd get on that airplane
and look at that speech and say, 'Mike, I'm not going to give
this same speech on education again, am I?' I said, 'Yeah, trust
me, it's going to work.' And it I did."...
Chris Matthews, former press secretary to Democratic Speaker of
the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.
"They know the presidency is ideally
suited for the television age, because it is one person, there
is all the People magazine aspect- what is he like, what is Nancy
like? It is amazing how the monarchy translates so well into the
television age and legislatures do not."
As Lyn Nofziger explained, there existed "kind of a mutual
back-scratching" arrangement between television and the Reagan
communications apparatus: "It's an unsaid thing. You need
each other. Television needs Deaver to make sure they get something
out of the White House today. Deaver needs television to make
sure the President is presented in a good light."
Leslie Janka, who worked as a press officer who worked in both
(Nixon and Reagan) administrations. "They've got to write
their story every day. You give them their story, they'll go away.
As long as you come in there every day, hand them a well-packaged,
premasticated story in the format they want, they'll go away.
The phrase is 'manipulation by inundation.' You give them the
line of the day, you give them press briefings, you give them
facts, access to people who will speak on the record.... And you
do that long enough, they're going to stop bringing their own
stories, and stopping investigative reporters of any kind, even
Central to Deaver's success was his recognition of something journalists
were loath to admit about their business: that news was, to the
corporations that produced it, primarily a commodity
"The press, myself included, traditionally sides with authority
and the establishment."
Stan Opotowsky of ABC News, about the journalistic elite
They just don't come in contact with people
not in their [income] bracket. They've lost touch with their community.
Robert Chandler, CBS News vice president
The fact that network journalists ranked
in the top 2 percent of the nation's population by income, was
not easily squared with the supposition that the media were an
institution dominated by liberals.
Reporters could be as liberal as they wished and it would not
change what news they were allowed to report or how they could
report it. America's major news organizations were owned and controlled
by some of the largest and richest corporations in the United
States. These firms were in turn owned and managed by individuals
whose politics were, in general, anything but liberal. Why would
they employ journalists who consistently covered the news in ways
they did not like?
To the class of super-rich and powerful
businessmen who ultimately controlled the U.S. news media, Ronald
Reagan was the most ideologically congenial President in living
As Ben Bagdikian wrote: "Some intervention by owners is direct
and blunt. But most of the screening is subtle, some not even
occurring at a conscious level, as when subordinates learn by
habit to conform to owners' ideas."
Saul Friedman of Knight-Ridder
"What is more the problem, and it's
more subtle, is that editors and publishers around the country
are in a milieu in which Reagan is liked. They go to the country
club or the cocktail parties or the Rotary Club lunches; that's
the way it works. If you want to be classical about it, newspapers
in many of our cities are edited these days for the people who
do vote, who do buy, who do advertise, who have profited a great
deal from Ronald Reagan's presidency, for what I call the Bloomingdale's
part of town and not necessarily the K Mart part of town."
Veteran Washington reporter James Deakin
described in his book Straight Stuff the subtle process by which
the limits on discussion got passed from the top of news organizations
down the hierarchy to the reporters who actually went out and
gathered and reported the news. The following passage refers to
the Eisenhower era, but corresponds with what a number of journalists
said privately about their own news organizations during the Reagan
"Most newspaper publishers were Republicans.
Their editors were salaried employees.... The reporters knew this.
They tried sporadically but they could not demonstrate a full-scale
alternative to the official line. And they knew that if they somehow
succeeded in doing this, they would find it virtually impossible
to get it into print. So they did not try too hard. [Eisenhower
press secretary James] Hagerty knew this, too. It was what you
call an atmosphere, a climate."
As Bagdikian wryly noted:
"It is a rare corporation that appoints
a leader considered unsympathetic to the desires of the corporation."
If the news media's rules of conduct and corporate identity I
made it such a reliable articulator and enforcer of governing-class
perspectives, why did the Reagan (or any other) administration
have to worry about taming it in the first place?
Partly because news reporting was by nature
a threat to authority. The founding purpose and tradition of journalism
was to pursue and report the truth, to describe things as they
were, even if that meant, as it usually did, challenging, angering,
or otherwise offending powerful interests and individuals. As
much as the press had been co-opted over the years and diverted
from its original / adversarial course, there still beat in the
journalistic heart, admittedly more faintly at some times than
others, an instinctive resistance to consistently reporting what
was not true.
The assault on the press was in fact but a part of a broader rightward
shift within the American power elite during the 1970s. Although
the corporate agenda would not be fully implemented until President
Reagan took office, its political ascendancy was clear even during
the Carter administration. By the end of his term, President Carter
had acceded to most of big business's demands, often reversing
his previous stands in the process. On taxes, for example, he
had promised progressive reform but ended up signing a law that,
among other regressive features, cut the top capital-gains rate
by more than 40 percent. He beat a similar retreat from his initial
policy of aggressive enforcement of federal regulatory laws. But
it was not only Carter who bowed to the political strength of
corporate forces; Congress was an equal and eager partner. Unsatisfied
with the 5 percent real increase in military spending proposed
by the Carter White House in 1980, for example, Congress added
more funds on its own, eventually enacting a 1981 defense budget
with 9 percent real growth built into it.
press historian James Boylan in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Starting with the seizure of the Teheran
embassy late in 1979 and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan
the press had both reported and joined what George Kennan called
the greatest "militarization of thought and discourse"
since World War II. Roger Morris wrote in 1980: "American
opinion this winter bristled with a strident, frustrated chauvinism-and,
from sea to shining sea, American journalism bristled with it."
. . . [T]he press, led by television, played the patriot, obsessively
focusing on crisis and suggesting that America, not individuals,
had been held hostage. At the same time, the press thus cannily
painted itself as being as loyalist as the jingo in the street.
William Greider said about the major news organizations:
They're powerful institutions. Their own
sensibility is that they do share in the governing process; whether
that's right or wrong, that's how they look at themselves; therefore,
they have to be responsible within that governing elite.... They
perceived over a period of years that the sensibilities and direction
of the governing elite were shifting, and they'll not long be
out of step with that."
Notwithstanding their public claims of a Reagan mandate, the core
group of strategists who made things happen in the Reagan White
House were keenly aware from the very start of how delicate, even
fragile, their political situation really was. Reagan had been
catapulted into office less on the virtues of his own candidacy
than on the strength of mass disappointment with Jimmy Carter
and a vague sense that, as most Reagan voters had told exit pollsters,
it was simply "time for a change." His advisers furthermore
recognized that Reagan's extreme views put him well to the right
of the majority of the American people and that he therefore lacked
the breadth of popular support necessary to sustain a successful
presidency. These shortcomings could be finessed in the short
term-the return of the Iranian hostages and the traditional honeymoon
period with the press would give the White House some much-needed
breathing room and maneuvering space but something would have
to be done, and fairly quickly, if the President's right-wing
agenda was to have any chance of becoming reality. The strategy
settled on by Reagan's advisers was a virtual monument to the
elevation of image over substance. Recognizing that their strongest
card was Reagan himself, the White House apparatus concentrated
on two basic tactics. First, Mr. Reagan's public appearances would
be carefully staged and controlled to emphasize his attractive
persona and winning personality to television viewers. Second,
he would be promoted not on the basis of his philosophy or his
program but rather as a decisive, can-do leader who promised to
get the country moving again after a period of turmoil and doubt.
Haig and his aides began in early February to leak stories portraying
Cuba and the Soviet Union as the source of revolution and turmoil
in Central America. One of the first fruits of their labors was
a February 6 New York Times article reporting that "the Soviet
Union and Cuba agreed last year to deliver tons of weapons to
Marxist-led guerrillas in E1 Salvador." The Times based its
charge on "secret documents reportedly captured from the
insurgents by Salvadoran security forces" and not only placed
the story on the front page but made it the day's lead article.
Such prominent placement in the nation's leading newspaper ensured
that the story would be widely picked up in the rest of the U.S.
press. This piggyback effect, combined with continued background
briefings and public statements by Haig about "drawing the
line" against so-called Soviet expansionism in E1 Salvador,
quickly made Central America the hottest story of the day. Fortunately
for Secretary Haig, most other news organizations displayed the
same ferocious skepticism the Times did. At CBS, for example,
former Richard Nixon personal aide-turned-television reporter
Diane Sawyer told viewers on February 12 that "U.S. officials
say the evidence is unmistakable that the Cubans are resupplying
the guerrillas in El Salvador under the direct sponsorship of
the Soviet Union."
The campaign of carefully orchestrated
leaks culminated February 23 in the highly publicized release
of a State Department White Paper entitled "Communist Interference
in El Salvador." By that time, the idea that foreign Communists
were behind the unrest in Central America had been circulating
through the news media long enough to take on a virtual life of
its own; the claim had been repeated so often that few thought
anymore to ask for proof. Most reporters, for example, apparently
did not bother to examine the nineteen documents released in support
of the paper (all of which were in Spanish anyway) and opted instead
to file reports based on the eight-page summary provided by the
State Department. It was routine procedure, and it resulted in
a fantastic public relations coup for the State Department as
reporters ; in effect reduced themselves to human transmission
belts, disseminating propaganda that would later be revealed to
The State Department's propaganda campaign was spectacularly successful.
It directed the gaze of the press onto the issue it wished and,
equally important, it set the terms in which that issue would
be discussed. True, the White Paper was eventually exposed as
disinformation-reports by the Pacific News Service and, later,
The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post would reveal its
key claims to be misleading distortions-but that was months in
the future. And besides, those rebuttals would be given far less
prominence in the media than the White Paper itself. Meanwhile,
with very few exceptions, reports in the nation's major newspapers
and on the three television networks trumpeted the new administration's
claims about the dangers of Communist intervention in the United
Considering the situation on the ground
in Central America and the actual U.S. role in the region, this
parroting of Washington's self-serving claims by the American
press was nothing short of shameful. If anyone, it was the United
States, not Cuba or the Soviet Union, who was behind the hideous
violence that racked El Salvador. Although Secretary Haig and
the rest of the Reagan administration talked piously about defending
democracy in El Salvador, the military junta which ruled that
country was one of the most murderously repressive in the world.
In March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who a month earlier
had criticized the armed forces for human rights abuses and pleaded
with President Carter not to send them more military aid, was
assassinated while saying mass. In all, some 10,000 civilians
were murdered in 1980, causing Archbishop Romero's successor to
condemn the armed forces' "war of extermination and genocide
against a defenseless civilian population." Not only was
the United States supporting the El Salvador government as it
slaughtered thousands of its own people; it was actively abetting
that slaughter. By the time Reagan came to power in 1981, the
United States had provided over $20 million in military aid to
El Salvador and trained some 2,000 of its elite officers. Worse
still, U.S. officials from the State Department, the CIA and other
agencies had helped to establish and maintain the widely feared
death-squad apparatus, whose hired hands had tortured and killed
so many Salvadorans over the years...
[Sam] Donaldson ... protesting to me:"
Most reporters thought the 1980 vote was to get Jimmy Carter out
of there. I don't know of one who suggested in his copy that the
vote was a mandate for Reagan's right-wing Republican economic
program. Now Reagan shrewdly used the ten million [vote] margin
to claim it was a mandate for his program, and the Congress went
along with it, but it certainly wasn't led by a pack of reporters."
It was true, of course, that reporters
did not lead the Reagan mandate chorus by unilaterally inserting
statements to that effect in their copy. That, after all, would
be editorializing. Rather, in an example of how the press often
functioned as a clear windowpane for the White House apparatus,
reporters simply gave Reagan officials a platform for making such
statements themselves and then did not bother to question or otherwise
balance them. In fact, on three separate occasions Donaldson did
this himself. On May 4, after showing viewers footage of Vice
President Bush attacking Democrats for trying "to thwart
the mandate of the people," the ABC White House correspondent
concluded his report not by challenging the mandate notion but
by noting that it, and not the merits of the program, was now
"the administration's main sales pitch." A similar claim
by White House spokesman Larry Speakes was allowed to pass unchecked
on June 3, as was another by President Reagan himself on June
16. (Donaldson was hardly unique in this regard. His counterparts
at CBS, for example, filed similar reports on the May 4 and June
Awed by Reagan's mastery of television
and fearful of his ability to sway public opinion, the Democrats
also seemed more than willing to accept the mandate thesis. Quickly
abandoning any pretense of being an opposition party, dozens of
them fell into line behind the President while scores more simply
refrained from voicing any strong or sustained criticism of his
program. Thus on May 8 the House of Representatives gave Reagan
his first big victory on economic policy, approving by a 60-vote
margin a White House budget that slashed social spending while
gorging the Pentagon.
"This was a program [Reagan's 1981 proposed budget cuts and
tax cut] that by its nature militated against poor people and
for rich people," explained Peter Milius, an editor who helped
run the national news desk at The Washington Post in 1981. "If
someone came down from Mars, it'd be the first thing you'd tell
him about it. You were cutting taxes and social welfare spending.
Taxes tend to be paid disproportionately by rich people and social
welfare spending goes disproportionately to poor people."
And compared with their coverage of the
rest of the Reagan economic program, the press was actually relatively
outspoken on the budget cuts. With the Democrats marching side
by side with, and occasionally even ahead of, Reagan on the tax
and military spending issues, the media (1) were even quieter
about what an incredible windfall the 1981 tax cuts were for big
corporations and the rich and (2) missed reporting altogether
an astonishing Pentagon raid on the U.S. Treasury that eventually
won the Defense Department untold hundreds of billions of dollars.
Despite the fantastic amount of money
involved, the Pentagon raid was not exposed until David Stockman
published his memoirs in 1986, and even then the news media failed
to pick up on the story. According to Stockman, Defense Secretary
Caspar Weinberger and his deputy (and future Reagan national security
adviser and Defense Secretary) Frank Carlucci worked a bookkeeping
trick on the young budget director shortly after Reagan's inauguration.
At a January 30, 1981, meeting, the three men agreed to a compromise
seven percent "real" increase in military spending.
(As a candidate in 1980, Reagan had urged between five and nine
percent growth.) The trick came when Carlucci suggested that the
seven percent growth begin with the 1982 budget-which happened
to be $80 billion bigger than the 1980 Carter budget Mr. Reagan
had criticized. Carlucci's sleight of hand, in other words, won
the military an extra $80 billion per year in spending authority
above and beyond what even conservative hard-liners had said was
needed to restore U.S. military prowess. Beginning with the 1982
budget, the Pentagon would receive, year in and year out, $80
billion of pure gravy. No wonder, to quote Stockman, "they
were squealing with delight throughout the military-industrial
Why didn't reporters catch Weinberger
and Carlucci? No classified documents were required, only the
application of probing skepticism toward official pronouncements
and a willingness to study the actual budget numbers. But that
was not the modus operandi of the typical Washington reporter.
Sources were his stock-in-trade, and until they rang a warning
bell, additional investigation was unlikely.
"There's a symbiotic relationship
in this town between government officials and outside critics
and news stories, and until something is recognized within those
circles as a problem, the one or two stories that may get done
on an issue tend to run inside the paper," explained Washington
Post military affairs reporter Fred Hiatt. (Hiatt did not cover
the Pentagon in 1981, but he did help uncover the spare parts
overpricing scandal, featuring $600 coffeepots and toilet seats,
that so embarrassed the Pentagon in 1983-84. Important as such
overpricing was, the burden it imposed on taxpayers was dwarfed
by that of the $80 billion annual cushion that Weinberger and
Carlucci inserted into the Pentagon budget under David Stockman's
nose.) "Look, overspending isn't what people were worried
about at the time," he said. "People in the administration
and who voted the budgets in Congress were worried about our military
being in a depressed state and needing to be upgraded after years
A similar if less extreme pattern was
evident in network news coverage of the enormous tax cuts of 1981.
Tax cuts were the centerpiece of President Reagan's economic program.
Not only were they far larger in dollar terms than the budget
cuts (over five years the 1981 tax cuts would result in federal
revenue losses of some $750 billion); they were the magic wand
that, it was promised, would revive the stagnant U.S. economy.
Later, Stockman would confess that supply-side
was merely old-fashioned "trickle-down" economics under
a new name, and that Kemp-Roth, the legislative embodiment of
supply-side, had merely been a Trojan horse intended mainly to
cut taxes for the top bracket, the wealthy. As those comments
hinted, the supply-side theory was in fact little more than the
intellectual justification for a policy of transferring huge amounts
of money to the already wealthy.
That was not, however, how Reagan's tax
cuts were portrayed in network news coverage at the time. Neither
the need for nor the likely effect of the tax cuts was exposed
to serious critical scrutiny. Rather, to the limited extent that
news stories examined the key theory behind Reaganomics at all,
a sort of agnostically optimistic view prevailed. For example,
CBS News correspondent Bruce Morton concluded a February 6 story
on the supply-side theory by quoting supporters to the effect
that perhaps it would not work, but then neither had anything
else, so it should at least be given a try. That sentiment was
echoed on the night of Reagan's April 28 speech when both ABC
and NBC featured Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker's comment
that Reagan's plan was "a gamble," but one that must
be tried "because nothing else has worked."
Although network news stories regularly
voiced concern that the tax cuts might enlarge the budget deficit,
they rarely even hinted at how lopsidedly they would favor rich
over poor. The White House apparatus deserved some of the credit
for that Reagan was outfitted with populist rhetoric with which
to sell the tax program, including the wonderfully misleading
phrase "across the board" to describe the cuts themselves.
That phrase may have made the cuts sound fair, but however they
sounded, 10 percent across-the-board cuts of course had radically
different effects depending on one's income. For a $20,000-a-year
auto repairman, for example, it amounted to a $200 subsidy, while
for a $2 million tycoon it was $200,000. (When one calculated
in the income effects of the Reagan budget cuts and previously
mandated increases in Social Security taxes, a citizen had to
make some $75,000 a year to rank among those who came out ahead
from the 1981 tax and budget changes.)
Although the math was simple enough, the
equity angle was virtually ignored on the evening news except
for a handful of stories in June, when Tip O'Neill blasted Reagan's
plan a couple of times as a "windfall to the rich."
And the extent of the corporate tax cuts got even less attention,
perhaps because the Democrats and the White House alike favored
them. indeed, the two parties got into a bidding war in June over
who could propose the most ( lavish package of benefits for corporate
America. The results were astonishing. The effective corporate
tax rate dropped from 33 to 16 percent, loopholes proliferated
and depreciation-schedules were made so generous that scores of
big companies ended up paying no income tax, or receiving rebates,
in at least one of the four years from 1981 to 1984. It was an
episode budget director Stockman would later recall as a time
when "the hogs were really feeding. The greed level, the
level of opportunism, just got out | of control."
As journalists who covered it later emphasized, the invasion of
Grenada cannot be understood without recalling what was happening
in Lebanon at the same time. Correspondent John McWethy, for example,
in conceding that he had been "clearly snookered" by
the Pentagon source who waved him off the invasion story, nonetheless
noted that he had been completely exhausted by the time the two
men spoke. Just the day before, Sunday, a suicide bombing had
destroyed a housing compound for U.S. marines in Beirut. As the
death toll quickly soared over two hundred, with bodies still
being recovered from the wreckage, the Beirut bombing began to
take shape as one of the biggest stories of 1983. Like most Washington-based
foreign affairs reporters, McWethy had been covering the story
virtually nonstop since Sunday morning, and was understandably
distracted when ordered to check out the Grenada angle on Monday
The Beirut bombing had all the makings
of a major political, disaster for President Reagan, and on the
eve of the 1984 presidential campaign no less. Deaths of U.S.
servicemen in overseas combat were always politically dangerous
for sitting Presidents, but Reagan had more reason to worry than
most. In September the White House apparatus had busily promoted
his non-military response to the KAL 007 incident as evidence
that he wasn't trigger-happy, but Richard Wirthlin's polls privately
showed that many Americans still feared that Reagan might lead
the country into war. Now, hundreds of young Americans had been
slaughtered in their sleep, and for what purpose?
Later there were those who suspected that
the Reagan administration launched its invasion of Grenada precisely
in order to divert public attention from the tragedy of Beirut.
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise; the go-ahead from Washington
to invade Grenada was given at least three days before the surprise
bombing took place in Beirut. Moreover, U.S. representatives had
secured from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States their
formal invitation to intervene militarily in Grenada on Saturday,
October 22, the day before the Beirut bombing. Nevertheless, from
Reagan's standpoint, the timing of the Grenada invasion could
hardly have been more fortuitous. The invasion yielded precisely
the kind of public relations dividends that skeptics charged the
administration had been seeking. The news media immediately made
the invasion the nation's top story while relegating Lebanon to
secondary status. And the invasion itself not only encouraged
people to forget about the Beirut tragedy; it provided a release
for the emotions of anger and grief it had triggered, emotions
that might otherwise have been vented on Reagan.
The propaganda windfall was such that
some Washington reporters later speculated privately that it had
been Michael Deaver who dreamed up the Grenada operation after
observing how the 1982 Falklands-Malvinas war had boosted British
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's sagging popularity. One Reagan
press aide later confirmed in an interview for this book that
"there were a lot of discussions by some White House people
about what the British had done in the Falklands." Deaver
himself denied having engineered the invasion of Grenada, but
volunteered that he had wholeheartedly supported it, partly because,
in his words, "it was obvious to me it had a very good chance
of being successful and would be a good story." Asked whether
he did not fear that attacking such a weak and tiny country would
in fact expose the President to ridicule, Deaver replied, "No,
because I think this country was so hungry for a victory, I don't
care what the size of it was, we were going to beat the shit out
of it. You know"-he chuckled-"two little natives someplace,
if we'd have staked the American flag down and said, 'It's ours,
by God,' it would have been a success."
But to ensure that the public applauded
the invasion, Deaver believed the government had to control to
the maximum extent what Americans were told and especially what
they were shown about it. (This lesson of Vietnam and the Falklands
would later be applied to great effect by the South African government
as well; its 1987 press ban led to substantially less TV coverage
abroad, thus reducing foreign protest against apartheid.) The
reason the public supported the Grenada action, explained Deaver
in retrospect, was that "they didn't have to watch American
guys getting shot and killed. They can't stand that every night.
They'll accept strafing a Libyan ship or going down and having
a forty-eight-hour action in Grenada, but they couldn't stand
day after day of armless children in Lebanon. We could stand all
that when [World War II newspaperman] Ernie Pyle was writing it
and once a week you go down and see the newsreels, but that's
a lot different than nightly on your television set. I firmly
believe this country, because of television, will be prevented
from ever fighting a ground war again."
ABC's John McWethy disagreed that television
made future ground wars impossible, but conceded that the press
had "a profound impact on the way they are able and not able
to fight wars. We stopped the Israelis short of demolishing Beirut
[in 1982] with our pictures. The tanks drew up and stood there
for a while, and day after day we broadcast pictures of what they
were doing to what was a civilized city, and the world went nuts."
The Reagan administration nulled that
problem by first barring the press from Grenada and then releasing
its own sanitized videotapes of the operation (which each of the
three major networks broadcast). "Their pictures weren't
Iying, but because they weren't all the pictures, they ended up
being distorting," commented McWethy. "Because there
was not a single piece of combat footage, it was not an accurate
reflection of what was going on down there. The administration's
argument is, if you had one frame of that stuff, that's the only
thing you'd show. Well, that's probably true. The lead picture
in our broadcast would not be students getting off the airplane
and kissing the ground, it would have been a soldier with his
guts blown away. And that would have turned public opinion around
in a big hurry."
And public opinion, as much as anything
else, was what Grenada was all about. The invasion of Grenada
came to be remembered in the United States as a reaffirmation
of American power and resolve after the humiliations of Vietnam
and Iran. Less often remembered were the handsome political dividends
it paid to President Reagan a year before he faced re-election.
Reagan's overall popularity rating jumped sharply after the invasion,
and public sentiment on his handling of foreign policy flip-flopped,
moving from 50 to 42 percent disapproval in September to 55 to
38 percent approval in November. Part of the shift is attributable
to the Beirut disaster and Americans' tendency to rally behind
any President in a moment of crisis. But there is no denying the
role Grenada played in rekindling among the American people the
spirit of old-fashioned nationalism which the Reagan campaign
would so skillfully encourage and exploit during the 1984 presidential
contest. Within eight weeks of the invasion, the President was
assuring the nation in his State of the Union address: "Our
days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their
feet and standing tall."
The rest of the world, it must be added,
was considerably less impressed by Grenada. Allies and adversaries
alike condemned the United States and, behind its back, smirked
when it crowed about overpowering such a postage stamp of a nation.
Self-absorbed isolationists by temperament and tradition, most
Americans never realized that it was only in the United States
(and its eastern Caribbean client states) that the invasion of
Grenada was applauded as a wonderful thing, but no matter. The
primary target of the operation was not in Grenada or Nicaragua,
or even in Cuba or the Soviet Union, for that matter; it was among
the electorate of the United States.
The U.S. news media's reporting of the Grenada invasion was a
veritable triumph of faith over reason. In retrospect, it is remarkable
how credulous leading American journalists, were of information
given them by a government which had both lied to them about whether
an invasion was planned and then censored them by preventing them
from covering it. But it was a trust built into the way most journalists
approached the task of reporting on their government.
"Most of the inaccurate stuff came
out of the press conferences [held in Washington by Defense Secretary
Weinberger and various military officials. But we took it hook,
line and sinker," conceded ABC's John McWethy. "When
you are in a situation where your primary source of information
is the United States government-and for three days basically your
only source of information, except Radio Havana-you are totally
at their mercy. And you have to make an assumption that the U.S.
government is telling the truth."
Asked why he gave Reagan's claims about
Grenada such credence after the administration had first misled
him about the impending invasion and later refused to allow him
or other reporters the chance to independently verify those claims,
McWethy asked rhetorically, "Do you report nothing? What
you do is say, 'Administration officials say.' You report that
Weinberger says the fighting was heaviest here, or Weinberger
says the barracks are under siege. Well, shit, he's the fucking
Secretary of Defense. What are you going to do? You report what
McWethy was one of the most knowledgeable
reporters on the foreign and military policy beat in Washington.
His conservative politics and heavy reliance on U.S. military
and diplomatic officials as news sources earned him the derisive
nickname of "General McWethy" among some ABC colleagues
... Reagan was praised as a peerless leader who had rekindled
the fires of greatness in America's soul.
The source of Reagan's extraordinary appeal
was actually simple enough. He told Americans what they wanted
to hear, and he did so with enough conviction so that many, including
members of the press, found it easy, and reassuring, to believe
him. Not for him Jimmy Carter's mistake of admitting that the
United States' quarter-century postwar reign as the world's pre-eminent
empire had come to an end, that new accommodations had to be reached
and new limits respected. Reagan, in effect, stood Carter's so-called
malaise speech on its head. The United States was not in decline.
It could still be the greatest power on earth, "the shining
city on a hill," if only it summoned the necessary will and
"Truth is the enemy of anyone presiding
over a nation in decline," Patrick Caddell, the instigator
of Carter's malaise speech, later observed. "Anyone who acknowledges
the truth [as Carter did] is out, because it is an acknowledgment
of failure. The only other option is denial. And that can only
be carried off by offering a counter-reality that is further and
further removed from the actual reality facing the country."
Reagan's counter-reality during the first
term consisted mainly of the 1981 dogfight with Libya and the
1983 invasion of Grenada-proof, as he later told the nation, that
the United States was once again "standing tall." Grotesquely
exaggerating the threat posed by external demons in order to whip
the home population into a belligerent, nationalistic frenzy was
an old trick, but it worked. And with Congress and the news media
serving as active accomplices, Reagan and his public relations
apparatus continued to foster national self-delusion and call
it patriotism during the second term as well.
The President's public relations wizards had long promoted Reagan
as the flesh-and-blood personification of Uncle Sam, with precious
little dissent from the press. But nowhere was the media's complicity
more in evidence than during the July 4,1986, "Liberty Weekend."
The three major television networks, and especially ABC (which
paid $10 million for exclusive rights to the entire four-day extravaganza),
treated viewers to an orgy of sycophantish saturation coverage.
Even reporters once critical of the President joined the cheering.
CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, for example, gushed: "Like
his leading lady, the Statue of Liberty, the President, after
six years in office, has himself become a symbol of pride in America;
he has devoted himself to reviving the spirit of patriotism across
the country." And Stahl's paean was restrained compared to
Time's homage in a cover story titled "Yankee Doodle Magic":
"Ronald Reagan is a sort of masterpiece of American magic,
apparently one of the simplest, most uncomplicated creatures alive,
and yet a character of rich meanings, of complexities that connect
him with the myths and powers of his country in an unprecedented
By the time these fine words reached Time's
readers, the secret arms shipments to Iran that would ultimately
prove Reagan's undoing had been underway for some eleven months.
But in an environment of such political self-congratulation and
cultural xenophobia, which the press itself had done much to foster,
was ~ it any wonder that news organizations failed to notice and
expose the Reagan administration's secret Iran initiative?
Comparing Iran-contra with Watergate,
Ben Bradlee later identified one essential difference in press
coverage of the two scandals: "Unlike Watergate, all newspapers
were on to this story very quickly." It was true, sort of.
News organizations did get onto the Iran-contra story quickly-but
only after it was dropped in their laps, courtesy of the small
Lebanese weekly Al Shiraa and the Reagan administration itself.
Like Watergate, Iran-contra spelled the
end of a presidency. But this time around, one could hardly credit
or blame the press, which had witlessly stared mounting evidence
in the face for months without blowing the whistle on the shady
U.S. dealings with Iran and the contras...
As Robert Parry, who had been on the Oliver North trail for months,
recalled: "The real effect of The New York Times and The
Washington Post is not only that they can sanctify something,
but if they're not covering it on anything like a regular basis,
if they've decided it's not news, it's very hard to convince your
editors at AP and even at Newsweek that it is news. Because they
don't see it in the morning papers that they read. So they think,
is this a guy who is off on his own tangent, following something
that really isn't a story that's going to get us in trouble?"
... until the Reagan administration itself certified that wrongdoing
had taken place, the press was essentially deaf, dumb and blind
to its abundantly obvious existence. Which recalls yet another
of the lessons of White House-press relations during Ronald Reagan's
first term: for the American press, truth was not truth and fact
not fact until the government said so.
The Reagan years seem destined to be regarded as one of the most
fantastic eras in American history, a time when the national political
debate was dominated by a bundle of ideas that almost without
exception were contradicted by objective facts, common sense or
both. In economic policy, there was the President's confident
assertion that the government could slash taxes and escalate military
spending without bloating the deficit, and that it could cut social
spending without ravaging the poor. In foreign policy, there was
the notion that Nicaragua, a country of some three million impoverished
peasants, posed a sufficiently grave threat to U.S. national security
to justify the waging of an illegal war that made a mockery of
America's claim to global moral leadership. Similarly shallow-brained
views prevailed across the entire spectrum of public policy, from
civil rights and the environment to nuclear weapons, drugs and
The American news media remained remarkably
blasé in the face of the seemingly endless stream of irrational
or otherwise baseless claims flowing from Washington. Upon Reagan's
ascension to power in 1981, the press quickly settled into a posture
of accommodating passivity from which it never completely arose.
Relieved by the departure of Jimmy Carter, gulled by false claims
of a right-wing popular mandate, impressed by Reagan's recovery
after being shot and seduced by his sunny personality and his
propaganda apparatus's talent for providing prepackaged stories
boasting attractive visuals, the Washington press corps favored
the newly elected President with coverage that even his own advisers
considered extremely positive. Few in the press remarked on how
biased Reagan's 1981 tax and budget cuts were in favor of the
rich over the poor, for example. And not a soul noticed that,
thanks to a bookkeeping trick eventually disclosed by David Stockman,
the Pentagon managed to increase its budget by some $80 billion
per year above what even Reagan and his peace-through-strength
1980 campaign advisers had advocated
Criticism did begin to be heard as the
economy shuddered to a halt late in 1981 amid growing evidence
that Reagan was, as journalists so gently phrased it, "disengaged"
from the realities of governance, and things were touch and go
for much of 1982. The bad economic news kept coming, and the press
sometimes blamed the President. But once the first feeble signs
of recovery appeared in the spring of 1983, the danger passed.
So-called Reagan gaffe stories mysteriously disappeared. News
reports began speculating that Mr. Reagan would be a hard man
to beat come next year's elections.
The August 1983 Korean airliner tragedy
was exploited to heighten the anti-Communist hysteria that had
already done so much to preclude criticism of Reagan's foreign
and military policies. Conquering Grenada ratcheted the mood of
self-congratulatory nationalism up yet another notch while distracting
attention from the 241 marines killed in the Beirut bombing days
earlier. Despite the censorship imposed by the administration,
the press played the Caribbean invasion as the President's "finest
hour" and held no lasting grudge. As James Baker later recalled
"We had a difference of opinion with the press with respect
to Grenada, of course, but it didn't carry over into generally
negative reporting. "
It certainly did not. When the economy
kept expanding in 1984, the press saw little reason to resist
Michael Deaver's attempt to portray Reagan's re-election as inevitable;
campaign coverage obligingly conveyed the White House version
of reality. While Walter Mondale was ridiculed as a wimp beholden
to special interests, Ronald Reagan was saluted as a great patriot
who made Americans proud of their country again. Thus did news
organizations in the world's greatest democracy fulfill their
self-proclaimed ideal of objective journalism in the fateful year
"You ain't seen nothing yet,"
Mr. Reagan crowed as he began his second term. And it was true-not
just of him but of the press whose exaltations of the President
as a leader of unique gifts and moral standing now reached a fever
pitch. Reagan's April 1985 visit to a West German cemetery containing
the graves of Nazi SS members, which occasioned the one spasm
of hard-edged coverage he encountered in the second term prior
to Iran-contra, provoked no tempering of this judgment. Nor did
his cheerful disregard for the millions of hungry and homeless
people haunting the nation's streets. Nor did the steadily growing
list of top administration officials accused of illegal or unethical
conduct. Even as he championed the values of individualism and
material gain that gave rise to these developments, Ronald Reagan
was treated as somehow separate and apart from them.
And then came the Iran-contra affair.
David Gergen, who believed the early Reagan years had witnessed
a return to the traditional deference that the press had exhibited
toward the government in the days before Watergate and Vietnam,
expressed the fear early in the scandal that Iran-contra marked
the end of deference. At the time, it seemed a plausible conjecture.
But as the scandal played itself out over the ensuing months,
it became increasingly clear that this climactic episode in the
relationship between the Reagan White House and the American press
constituted less a departure from the patterns of the past six
years than a reaffirmation of them.
After all, it took wrongdoing on the scale
of Watergate wrongdoing judged as such by some 90 percent of the
American people and, crucially, by Reagan's own right-wing allies
in Washington-along with the Democrats' regaining control of both
houses of Congress, before the nation's major news organizations
subjected Reagan to the kind of sustained and aggressive coverage
that should be the norm in a properly functioning democratic system
of checks and balances. And even then, the press delivered a less
than stellar performance. It was astonishingly late coming to
the Iran-contra story, easily diverted from the fundamental issues
and all too willing to give up the chase.
Still, it would be foolish to blame the
press alone for the extraordinary political successes of the Reagan
administration, or to hold it solely accountable for the shameful
deterioration in the honesty and vitality of the nation's political
life that took place during the Reagan years. Surely the President
himself should also be held responsible for what happened, as
should Michael Deaver, James Baker, David Gergen, Richard Darman,
Larry Speakes, Richard Wirthlin and all the others who labored
so intensively in his service. Together they sold the official
myths of Reagan's presidency to the American public by developing
a sophisticated new model for manipulating the press. Many of
the techniques they applied-such as the virtual elimination of
regular press conferences and the stage-managed emotional appeals
designed to distract attention from Reagan's actual policies-bespoke
a fear of open government and accountable democracy not to mention
contempt for people's intelligence. Others, such as packaging
and promoting the President as if he were a new brand of automobile,
debased the nation's political process in subtler though no less
Faced with the challenge of implementing
policies which, as Gergen conceded after the fact, were directly
at odds with mass sentiment, Reagan's men made the presentation
of issues, rather than their substance, the pre-eminent consideration.
This strategy meshed perfectly with the sort of television-dominated,
bottom-line-oriented journalism increasingly being practiced by
the major national news organizations in the 1980s. And these
organizations responded in kind with gentle, jelly-bean journalism
that elevated surface over substance and obfuscated the real issues
at stake; it was a perfect symbiosis.
The animating mentality of the Reagan
propaganda apparatus was revealed in all its witless malevolence
by Michael Deaver's cheerful confession that he didn't know or
care whether SDI would actually work; speaking of the weapons
system that might someday end life on the planet, he said he supported
it because ~t was "a great concept." Yet the Reagan
model and the value system it embodies now threaten to become
a permanent feature of American politics. For that alone, the
men of the Reagan apparatus deserve censure of the highest order.
But they never could have achieved so
much had the rest of official Washington not acquiesced, in word
and deed, to so much of their agenda. Cowed by exaggerated impressions
of Reagan's popularity, Congress, and the Democrats in particular,
repeatedly shrank back from challenging Reagan's basic assumptions
and directions. Indeed, throughout the Reagan era, the Democrats
were a pathetic excuse for an opposition party-timid, divided,
utterly lacking in passion, principle and vision, a paler version
of Reaganism but without the Reagan.
Nor can the American people escape all
responsibility for what was done in their name during the Reagan
years. True, they were frequently deprived of plain-spoken explanations
of what was going on around them. But what I. F. Stone once said
about the bureaucracy in Washington applies equally well to the
U.S. news media: it puts out so much information every day that
it can't help but let the truth slip from time to time. To anyone
paying the minimum amount of attention required of a concerned
citizen, the basic thrust of Reagan's policies was clear. And
there were plenty of opportunities for resisting them. For all
the power wielded by preservers of the status quo, citizens of
the United States had more freedom to challenge government policy
than did citizens anywhere else in the world.
To be sure, they were hardly encouraged
in this direction by the press (or by most mainstream political
leaders, for that matter). Indeed, the political effect of most
news coverage was to fill people's heads with officially sanctioned
truth and thus to encourage among them a sense of isolation, confusion
and apathy bordering on despair. This was to be expected; after
all, the press took its definition of what constituted political
news from the political governing class in Washington. Thus while
the press shaped mass opinion, it reflected elite opinion; indeed,
it effectively functioned as a mechanism by which the latter was
transformed, albeit imperfectly, into the former.
It is tempting to dismiss the Reagan years
as aberrational, a time when a feverish madness temporarily overtook
the country, causing otherwise sensible people in the press and
elsewhere to forsake reason, lose the courage of their convictions
and drift into smug self-delusion. Alas, all this did happen.
But this explanation mistakes symptoms for causes. Most of the
salient characteristics of the relationship between the press
and the White House predated the Reagan years; the excesses of
those years simply made their existence, and their consequences,
much more apparent.
The fundamental problem was that the press
was part of, and beholden to, the structure of power and privilege
in the United States. That did not mean it never challenged a
President. The corporate counteroffensive of the 1970s, for example,
was eventually reflected in press coverage sharply critical of
President Carter. And even Ronald Reagan, a rich man's President
if there ever was one, was attacked in the aftermath of the October
1987 stock-market crash. (In a display of breathtaking hypocrisy
after the Wall Street debacle, Time ridiculed the President it
had so vigorously applauded throughout his first term as "befuddled,"
"dodder[ing]" and "embarrassingly irrelevant,"
and went on to declare that he had "stayed a term too long.")
But for the most part, Reagan was spared from genuinely adversarial
coverage. As a member of Washington palace court society and a
creature of the establishment, the press simply was constitutionally
disinclined to offer fundamental criticisms of a presidency that
above all else articulated and advanced the interests of corporate
America. Journalists allowed loyalty to their executive superiors
and official sources to take precedence over their obligations
to the public and the country.
One need only consider the 1988 presidential
campaign to see what lessons the press, and the politicians, have
drawn from the Reagan experience. Both George Bush and Michael
Dukakis have run campaigns modeled on the 1984 Reagan effort:
control one's message by staging photo-opportunity events that
boast all the spontaneity of May Day parades in Moscow; keep reporters
at a distance; and avoid being drawn into meaningful give-and-take
about one's record or future plans. Meanwhile, the nation's journalists
are once again gripped by horse-race mania. Once again, citizens
are told far more about where the candidates stand in the polls
than where they stand on the issues. Once again, ratings prevail
over responsibility, news is treated as a commodity to be sold
rather than an educational trust to be fulfilled and fundamental
questions about the nation's direction are neglected in favor
of the six-second sound bite.
When Abe Rosenthal said that for a paper
like The New York Times there are no excuses, there are only values,
he could just as easily have been speaking of any of the major
newspapers, television networks, magazines and other large news
organizations that in their seamless totality exercise such enormous
influence over the national political discussion in late-twentieth
century America. The news media have become the single most influential
actor on the stage of American politics. Their power is only increasing,
and there exist precious few checks and balances upon them.
The press's failure during the Reagan
years suggests that the time has come for a fresh debate on its
role within American society. For no matter who is elected President
in 1988, the quality of press coverage and therefore of the nation's
political debate and its democratic process promises only to get
worse unless the men and women of the press return to first principles
and live up to the concept of a free and independent press first
upheld some two hundred years ago by the American Revolution.
Perhaps this is too much to expect from employees of the profit-obsessed
corporations that now own America's news organizations. But, in
a land that once produced the likes of Adams, Paine and Jefferson,
that is a bitter thought indeed.
Mark Hertzgaard page
Ronald Reagan page