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MediaWatch: December 1989

Vol. Three No. 12

Renouncing the Reagan Decade

Many will remember the 1980's as a decade of American renewal sparked by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was marked by a renewal of prosperity, with the creation of more than 17 million new jobs, and a renewal of generosity, as charitable giving more than doubled to over $100 billion in 1988. But history is in the eye of the beholder, and in the journalist's corner, where the first drafts of history are written daily, the Reagan era symbolized nothing but greed, sleaze and decline.

CBS This Morning began a week-long series on the coming decade with a look back. "The 1980's," co-host Kathleen Sullivan intoned on November 13, was "a decade dominated, in politics and in style, by the Reagans...While the wealthy got most of the attention, those who needed it most were often ignored. More homeless, less spending on housing. The gap between the top and the bottom grew in the '80's....The AIDS crisis began in the '80's. Some say the decade's compassion gap made it worse." Among those used on camera to support Sullivan's thesis was Time Senior Writer Walter Shapiro.

Born in the 1980's, USA Today might have been kinder, but instead featured a front-page analysis from Debbie Howlett on November 27: "The '80s were the years of excess. We swaggered through the portals and grabbed as much as we could. We were greedy and gluttonous. As long as we wore starched shirts, we could belch at the dinner table. And Ronald Reagan led us."

USA Today's eternal "we" only applied to liberals. "We joined Greenpeace and MADD." ("We" did?) "Our heroes were figments: E.T., Batman, Bernhard Goetz. Some real heroes died. John Lennon was shot to death...Abbie Hoffman killed himself with a drug overdose." Howlett also played fast and loose with the sleaze report: "Even our politics were excessive. More than 100 top- level Reagan Administration officials were tainted by illegal and unethical conduct." She ignored the number of officials convicted rather than "tainted" and overlooked Democratic models of ethical purity, such as Jim Wright and Barney Frank, as if they belonged to another decade.

Both saw hope in the post-Reagan 1990's. USA Today's subheadline read: "The decade of the '90s will emerge as a decade when people began to care." Indeed, equating more government spending with a better future, Sullivan predicted, "In the '90s, the situation may improve. By next year, Congress will pass nearly $4 billion in child care subsidies and tax credits."