Ronald Reagan lived a charmed life in many respects, none more so than in his relationship with the news media. Indeed, his accomplishments as President are impossible to understand without recognizing the way he and his advisers turned the media, especially television, into a national megaphone for his policies. Most obituaries of Reagan have noted the decisive role that public relations played in his White House, and it’s true that the former actor’s PR apparatus pioneered or perfected many of the news-management techniques now taken for granted by press and public alike. The media’s own complicity in the process has generally gone unmentioned, however, perhaps because it is journalists who write the obituaries. Although the Reagan White House did not shrink from censoring news, most famously during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the taming of the media during the Reagan years was mostly self-inflicted.
Reagan’s own advisers admitted as much. Reagan was called the Teflon President because blame never stuck to him, an outcome reporters attributed to his sunny personality. But David Gergen, the former White House communications director, told me, “A lot of the Teflon came because the press was holding back. I don’t think they wanted to go after him that toughly.” Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, agreed: “We have been kinder to President Reagan than any President…since I’ve been at the Post.”
In On Bended Knee, a book about the press and Reagan based on interviews with scores of journalists, news executives and Administration officials, I documented numerous cases of self-censorship. The management of CBS News, allegedly the most liberal of America’s TV networks, ordered its Washington bureau–in particular White House correspondent Lesley Stahl–to tone down criticism of Reagan because ordinary Americans supposedly didn’t want to hear it. At the New York Times, correspondent Raymond Bonner was pulled off the Central America beat after his exposé of a civilian massacre by US-trained forces in El Salvador angered Administration officials and their right-wing allies at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. A camera crew for ABC News filmed troops on their way to Grenada and got confirmation of the impending invasion from US officials in the region, but their executive producer in New York trusted an off-the-record denial by the Pentagon more than his own reporters and killed the story.
But the friendly coverage of Reagan usually had less dramatic explanations. One was technical: Reagan and his PR apparatus knew how to get their desired message across while satisfying the media’s appetite for interesting stories and appealing visuals. The apparatus understood the value of repetition– in an information-saturated society, only messages that get repeated can pierce the static and register on the public consciousness–and they pursued it with discipline and skill. Reagan’s PR was planned months in advance and fine-tuned every morning in meetings that set “the line of the day,” which the Administration’s spokesman would duly repeat to reporters. The settings of the President’s public appearances were carefully controlled–he stood before flattering backdrops and too far away for reporters to ask questions.
A second, more profound, source of the friendly coverage was ideological. In the United States, the media shape mass opinion but tend to reflect elite opinion, and most of the nation’s elite either supported Reagan or were afraid to criticize him. This was true not only of the executives who employed the journalists covering Reagan but also of most Democrats. Because the doctrine of objectivity prevents reporters from saying the sky is blue without citing an official source, they look to the opposition party for quotes and perspectives to counter the White House’s claims. The coverage of any President, therefore, tends to be only as critical as the opposition party is. The failure of Democrats to criticize Reagan meant he faced relatively uncritical coverage (just as Republicans’ aggressiveness led to relatively tough coverage of Bill Clinton). This dynamic was especially helpful to Reagan on foreign policy, where Democrats feared that any criticism would make them look insufficiently tough. Thus, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally halted nuclear testing and invited Reagan to do the same, the halt went unreported in the United States for months until Gorbachev extended it a second and third time, when it was finally mentioned but dismissed by ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson as “nothing but propaganda.”
In the American system of checks and balances, it is not the media’s job to be for or against any President, but it is their job to make the reality, rather than the spin, of the President’s policies clear so citizens can decide intelligently whether to support them. This the media largely failed to do during the Reagan years. And as in so many fields, the right-wing offensive Reagan launched continues to shape American life. His deregulation of broadcasting gave rise to today’s hyper-monopolized media industry, while his attacks on the supposed bias of the press has journalists bending over backward to prove they’re not liberals. Because he changed the world so profoundly, Reagan will be remembered as one of the two or three most important Presidents of the twentieth century. But he could have accomplished none of this without the help of the American media.