In a commemorative issue published the weekend Ronald Reagan died, Time magazine described the former President as “a man with the power to pull history around a corner” and “change the conversation of our politics and culture as much by the sheer force of his personality as by the power of his ideas.” The national media’s often gracious coverage in the days after Reagan’s death obscured the unfortunate historical record of media coverage: a chronicle often filled with not just disagreement, but with disgust, hatred, ridicule, and insults. Below are listed five categories the Media Research Center has assembled to assess the “objective” national media’s most biased takes on President Reagan, his record and his times:
Reagan the Man: Reporters often agonized over why the American public liked Reagan, that they couldn’t see through the White House spell and see Reagan in the contemptuous light that they did.
The Reaganomics Recovery: Reagan’s policies caused a dramatic economic turn-around from high inflation and unemployment to steady growth, but the good news was obscured by bad news of trade deficits, greedy excesses of the rich, and supposedly booming homelessness.
Reagan and National Defense: Ronald Reagan may have won the Cold War, but to the media, the Reagan defense buildup seemed like a plot designed to deny government aid to the poor and hungry, and was somehow the only spending responsible for “bankrupting” the country.
Reagan and Race: Using their definition of “civil rights” — anything which adds government-mandated advantages for racial minorities is “civil rights” progress — liberal journalists suggested that somehow Ronald Reagan was against liberty for minorities.
The Reagan Legacy: The media painted the Reagan era as a horrific time of low ethics, class warfare on the poor, and crushing government debt.
Liberals expressed fear that the first draft of Reagan obituary coverage was too generous, a hagiography, a manufacturing of myth. But these few days are no match for decades of demonization, a myth that Reagan only brought the nation poverty, ignorance, bankruptcy, and a dangerously imbalanced foreign and defense policy.
In a commemorative issue published the weekend Ronald Reagan died, Time magazine described the former President as “a man with the power to pull history around a corner” and “change the conversation of our politics and culture as much by the sheer force of his personality as by the power of his ideas.” The national media’s often gracious coverage in the days after Reagan’s death obscured the unfortunate historical record of media coverage: a chronicle often filled with not just disagreement, but with disgust, hatred, ridicule, and insults.
Liberals expressed fear that the first draft of Reagan obituary coverage was too generous, a hagiography, a manufacturing of myth. But these few days are no match for decades of demonization, a myth that Reagan only brought the nation poverty, ignorance, bankruptcy, and a dangerously imbalanced foreign and defense policy.
The Media Research Center has assembled a report documenting the “objective” national media’s most biased takes on President Ronald Reagan, his record and his times:
Reagan the Man
With the death of Ronald Wilson Reagan, many Americans will remember stories about the man and the President, his leadership and his vision, his humanity and his optimism, his deep love of country and his belief in the power of freedom. Everything Reagan sought to accomplish seemed ludicrous and uneducated to the long-standing liberal consensus. Tax cuts would be wildly inflationary. Government was the solution, not a generator of problems. A foreign policy based on the radical notion that communism should be put on the ash heap of history was dismissed as a bellicose fantasy that was too dangerous for the nuclear age.
Reagan was portrayed as an unintelligent airhead who lived in a fantasy world, a mesmerizing Music Man fooling the public with a phony bill of goods, a man who was cruel or uncaring to poor people and a puppet for the greedy rich. Reporters often agonized over why the American public liked Reagan, couldn’t see through the White House spell and see Reagan in the contemptuous light as did they.
“Pretty simplistic. Pretty old-fashioned. And I don’t think they
have much application to what’s currently wrong or troubling a lot of
people....Nor do I think he really understands the enormous difficulty a
lot of people have in just getting through life, because he’s lived in
this fantasy land for so long.”
— NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw speculating on Reagan’s values in Mother Jones, April 1983.
“The mission that Reagan has embarked upon has nothing to do with
his personal charm. He has set out to reverse the course of American
government that was charted by Franklin Roosevelt. If F.D.R. explored
the upper limits of what government could do for the individual, Reagan
is testing the lower limits. Reagan’s opinions and policies would be
enough in another time to have protesters marching in the streets, or
worse. And yet something about Reagan soothes and unites — even though
the effects of his programs may repel.”
— Essayist Lance Morrow in the July 7, 1986 Time magazine cover story, “Why Is This Man So Popular?”
“So I think [Ronald Reagan] is going to have to pass two or three
tests. The first is, will he get there, stand in front of the podium,
and not drool?”
— ABC White House reporter Sam Donaldson on a planned Reagan press conference, NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, March 18, 1987.
“The Acting President: Ronald Reagan and the Supporting Players Who Helped Him Create the Illusion That Held America Spellbound”
— Title of 1989 book by Bob Schieffer, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent, and Gary Paul Gates, co-authors of The Palace Guard.
“They [Reagan and Thatcher] quickly formed a bond that overcame
their differences of age, gender and — many whisper — IQ scores.”
— Washington Post reporter David Broder, May 27, 1989.
“To the self-indulgent age of the ‘80s and to the characters that
gave it special flavor at home — Oliver L. North and Ronald Reagan,
Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Arthur
Laffer and his curve, the Yuppies and the leveraged buyout dealmakers —
— Former Washington Post editor Haynes Johnson, December 29, 1989.
“Reagan’s approval ratings never put him in the top rank of most
popular Presidents; that was always a myth. And his confectionary,
heavily scripted presidency tended to lead the country backward.”
— Newsweek Senior Writer Jonathan Alter, December 31, 1991 news story.
“[Bush] is about to make matters worse by hauling out Ronald Reagan
at the Republican convention. Reagan has become a symbol of what went
wrong in the ‘80s. It’s like bringing the Music Man back to River City,
a big mistake.”
— Newsweek reporter Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group, August 1, 1992.
“I think the best evidence I can give that we do a lousy job
covering politics is to look at the politicians: Ronald Reagan was
President of us for eight years — Ronald Reagan! Reporters should have
been writing for the entire eight years of his reign that this man was
gone, out of it....He should have been covered as a clown.”
— NBC reporter Bob Herbert during a panel discussion at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in Fall 1992, as reported in a June 21, 1993 National Review article by Stephanie Gutmann. Herbert is currently a New York Times columnist.
“All of us who covered the Reagans agreed that President Reagan was
personable and charming, but I’m not so certain he was nice. It’s hard
for me to think of anyone as nice when I hear him say ‘The homeless are
homeless because they want to be homeless.’ To my mind, a President
should care about all people, and he didn’t, which is why I will always
feel Reagan lacked soul.”
— UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas in the July 1993 Good Housekeeping.
“In the plague years of the 1980s — that low decade of denial,
indifference, hostility, opportunism, and idiocy — government fiddled,
medicine diddled, and the media were silent or hysterical. A
gerontocratic Ronald Reagan took this [AIDS] plague less seriously than
Gerald Ford had taken swine flu. After all, he didn’t need the ghettos
and he didn’t want the gays.”
— CBS Sunday Morning TV critic John Leonard, September 5, 1993. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“I was a correspondent in the White House in those days, and my work
which consisted of reporting on President Reagan’s success in making
life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white, and healthy
saddened me. My parents raised me to admire generosity and to feel
pity. I had arrived in our nation’s capital [in 1981] during a historic
ascendancy of greed and hard-heartedness.”
— New York Times editorial page editor (and former Washington Bureau Chief) Howell Raines in his 1994 book Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.
“Let’s not debate his presidency, but his passing. As opposed to a
man like Reagan, Nixon is, was highly regarded as a genuine statesman
with a first-class mind.”
— Bryant Gumbel, April 26, 1994 Today.
“How much did Reagan fool the American people and how much did he
simply play into their wishes? Were they misled by the nature of his
campaigning or were they led into ways they wanted to go? Was Reagan
sort of a modern Pied Piper? It’s my instinct about it that he very
successfully delayed the apprehension of reality by this country for
about a decade. He made people feel that things were better than they
were, that the external dangers were greater than they were.”
— Former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil in the 1995 Liz Cunningham book Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age.
Time’s Jack White: “And he was extraordinarily lucky in that he wasn’t brought down by the Iran-Contra scandal.”
Columnist Charles Krauthammer: “Oh, come on.”
White: “...It verged on treason. He was extraordinarily lucky on that. He tried to turn the clock back on civil rights. There’s a whole history of problems with this guy that some of us don’t join you in the view that he’s the most successful presidency.”
Krauthammer: “...He ushered in the collapse of the Soviet empire, which is the greatest achievement of the last 50 years.”
Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas: “He had kind of an intuitive idiot genius.”
— September 25, 1999 Inside Washington.
“Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead! That’s one of the
conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a
tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the
— NBC co-host Katie Couric opening Today before an interview with Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, who actually wrote that President Reagan was “an apparent airhead.” He told Couric, “He was a very bright man.” (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
Co-host Bryant Gumbel: “Well, later on this morning we’re
going to be talking on this President’s Day about this presidential
survey. Who would you think finished first?...Of all the Presidents
when they did first to worst. Oh c’mon, you would know.”
Co-host Jane Clayson: “Ronald Reagan.”
Gumbel, dropping his pen: “First?!?!”
Clayson: “Who was it?”
Gumbel: “No! Reagan wasn’t even in the top ten. Abraham Lincoln. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
— Exchange on CBS’s The Early Show about C-SPAN poll of historians which ranked Reagan 11th, February 21, 2000.
The Reaganomics Recovery
Few remember any more that 1979 and 1980 were the nation’s worst economic years since the Great Depression. Reagan saved America from Jimmy Carter economics: he brought inflation down from 13.5 to 4.1 percent; unemployment, from 9.5 to 5.2 percent; the federal discount rate, from 14 to 6.5 percent. Under Reagan, the number of jobs increased by almost 20 million; median family income rose every year from 1982 to 1989. It was the greatest peacetime expansion in American history. Charitable giving more than doubled, to more than $100 billion in 1988.
But the media elite’s first drafts of history ignored the good news and highlighted the bad news. In a study of almost 14,000 network stories in on the economy during three one-year time periods – July 1 to June 30 in 1982-83, 1984-85, and 1986-87—Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ted J. Smith III found that as the economy improved, the amount of network TV coverage shrunk and grew more negative in tone. The ratio of negative to positive stories aggressively increased even as economic indicators improved, from 4.9 to 1 in 1982-83 to 7.0 to 1 in 1986-87. When an economic indicator grew better, the networks began covering it less so they could focus more on unhealthy economic signs. For instance, as the unemployment rate fell from 10.6 percent to well under 6 percent by 1987, the number of stories on employment plunged by 79 percent while reports on the growing trade deficit soared 65 percent and stories on the homeless jumped by 167 percent.
The media had a theory to prove: Reaganomics was a dramatic failure.
“But I thought from the outset that his ‘supply side’
[theory] was just a disaster. I knew of no one who felt that it was
going to work, outside of a small collection of zealots in Washington
and at USC — Arthur Laffer, Jack Kemp. What I thought quite outrageous
was the business community, which for years carped and complained that
it could never get a President sympathetic to its needs, finally got
its champion, Ronald Reagan. Then, to its horror, it discovered that he
was actually going to press ahead with supply side — a theory whose
disastrous consequences businesspeople began desperately to prepare
for, but did not publicly warn the rest of the country about. They knew
it simply could not work. But what they did was look to their own
little life raft and not to anyone else’s.”
— Tom Brokaw in an interview in Mother Jones, April 1983.
“As a practical matter, the homeless won’t get very far
unless they can persuade a Republican to break with Ronald Reagan’s
policies — or elect a Democrat.”
— Newsweek senior editor Tom Mathews in the March 21, 1988 issue.
“Underlying Flaws in Economy Mar Legacy of Reagan
Years: Despite Successes on Inflation and Jobs, Problems of Deficits,
Productivity, Wealth, Savings and Other Indices Cloud Outlook for
— Washington Post headline, November 13, 1988.
“After eight years of what many saw as the Reagan
Administration’s benign neglect of the poor and studied indifference to
civil rights, a lot of those who lived through this week in Overtown
seemed to think the best thing about George Bush is that he is not
Ronald Reagan....There is an Overtown in every big city in America.
Pockets of misery made even meaner and more desperate the past eight
— ABC’s Richard Threlkeld reporting from a section of Miami where there had been riots, on World News Tonight, January 20, 1989.
“It now seems the time has come to pay the fiddler for our costly dance of the Reagan years.”
— Bryant Gumbel talking about a budget deal involving higher taxes, on NBC’s Today, May 9, 1990.
“As this decade comes to a close, the United States has
the highest rate of poverty in the industrial world, 32 million poor
people and no one knows exactly how many of them are hungry and
homeless. So that ‘shining city on a hill’ of which President Reagan
spoke in his farewell address remains to these Americans a mirage and
will remain so until we come to see them — men, women and children — as
people like us.”
— Bill Moyers after PBS’s re-airing of 1982 CBS Reports “People like Us,” June 20, 1989.
“Largely as a result of the policies and priorities of
the Reagan Administration, more people are becoming poor and staying
poor in this country than at any time since World War II.”
— Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s Today, July 17, 1989.
“Okay, Democrats are certainly not without blame, but I
believe the S&L crisis lands right at the Republican door. It was
the magic of the marketplace that took off the regulations....Oh,
Ronald Reagan and the magic of the marketplace was the theme of the
‘80s. Greed in this country is associated with Ronald Reagan.”
— Newsweek reporter Eleanor Clift on Face the Nation, July 29, 1990.
“We wanted everything but the pain of paying for it. It
began with a promise from a new President....In a decade [the] deficit
more than tripled. How? Ronald Reagan ran for President promising
Americans more while asking for less: the Reagan Revolution.”
— Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News, October 5, 1990.
“For ten years Ronald Reagan taught us there was a free
lunch. ‘Folks,’ he said, ‘we’re going to cut your taxes and we’re
going to spend like there’s no tomorrow and you don’t have to pay for
it.’ Folks, we’re now paying for it and it’s bitter medicine....We’re
going to have to raise taxes to get some sort of fairness here....For
ten years the great wizard sold us that idea, that we could grow our
way out of the deficits and we bought it, and we didn’t.”
— Sam Donaldson on This Week with David Brinkley, October 7, 1990.
“The boom years following World War II saw the U.S.
economy take off, giving rise to the growth of the great American
middle class. The rising standard of living meant homes, cars, TVs,
college for the kids — all in all, a piece of the American dream. But
in the Reagan years, economic erosion set in, so much so that the
middle class now finds itself in ever-deepening trouble.”
— Bryant Gumbel on Today, January 22, 1992. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“In America in the 1980s, what former President Reagan
and those who support him call the Reagan revolution put more money in
the pockets of the rich. We already knew that. But a new study
indicates that those who did best of all by far were the very richest
of the rich.”
— Dan Rather on CBS Evening News, March 5, 1992.
“It is often said that Ronald Reagan’s big budget cuts
declared war on the poor. The most that can be said of George Bush is
that he declared a cease-fire.”
— Lisa Myers on NBC Nightly News, May 7, 1992.
“Senator, don’t you believe, a lot of people do think
that the ‘80s were an excess, which a lot of people got richer and
people got poorer, and it’s now fair to redress that balance?”
— Sam Donaldson to Robert Dole on This Week with David Brinkley, Feb. 21, 1993.
“In the greedy excesses of the Reagan years, the mean
income of the average physician nearly doubled, from $88,000 to
$170,000. Was that warranted?”
— Bryant Gumbel to Dr. Richard Corlin of the American Medical Association, March 31, 1993 Today.
“Reagan got his taxation program through, which was to
cut taxes to the bone. Mr. Clinton’s going to get his program through,
which is to raise taxes to the sky. And let us hope, Cokie, that it
doesn’t turn out to have a similar fate. What Reagan did was destroy
— Sam Donaldson on This Week with David Brinkley, March 28, 1993.
“There’s no question it was the Reagan tax cuts that led to the deficit.”
— CBS Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran on C-SPAN’s Journalists’ Roundtable, September 23, 1994.
“The trouble is that Ronald Reagan left us with the
check. He may not remember all this, but he left us with a $3 trillion
— San Francisco Examiner Washington Bureau Chief and America’s Talking host Chris Matthews on Good Morning America, January 4, 1995.
“Our viewers remember from ‘80, from 1980 to 1988,
Ronald Reagan said he could cut taxes, increase defense, and still
balance the budget. The deficit under Ronald Reagan doubled. The debt
tripled, and home mortgage rates were 12 percent. It didn’t work then.
Why would it work now?”
— Meet the Press host Tim Russert to GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes, September 24, 1995.
“The legacy of the Reagan administration will be with
us for years. The deficit under Reagan totaled more than a trillion
dollars. Someday we’re going to have to pay those bills. As officials
look to cut spending and taxes at the same time, we can’t afford
another round of voodoo economics....I remember that campaign slogan
one year ‘It’s morning again in America.’ Well, it may have been
morning for some, but for a lot of people in this country it’s become a
— CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley in an April 28, 1996 speech to Benedictine University in Illinois, aired May 11, 1996 on C-SPAN.
“If there is any President who does not deserve credit
for our current economic prosperity it is Ronald Reagan. The latter
part of the 1980s will go down as one of the most poorly-managed,
economically reckless fiscal periods in American history.”
— PBS To the Contrary host Bonnie Erbe, February 28, 1998 syndicated column.
Reagan and National Defense
Ronald Reagan may have won the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to realize that it could not compete financially or technologically with a revitalized United States. But to the American media, the Reagan defense buildup seemed like a plot designed to deny government aid to poor and hungry people. It was seemingly the only spending that caused the budget deficit, even bankrupted the country. Cranking up spending on supposedly unworkable new ideas like a national missile defense system was “absolute nonsense,” as ABC’s Ted Koppel told Phil Donahue in 1987.
A 1985 Los Angeles Times survey of reporters found out how McGovernite liberalism dominated the press: 84 percent of reporters and editors supported a so-called “nuclear freeze” to ban all future nuclear missile deployment; 80 percent were opposed to increased defense spending; and 76 percent objected to aid to the Contra rebels fighting for democracy in Nicaragua.
One side of this debate had an eye on permanent “peaceful coexistence.” The other side had an eye on victory.
“The Reagan Administration has made a bad situation
worse in two ways: first, by convincing the Soviet leaders that the
U.S. no longer accepts military parity as the basis for relations with
Moscow; second, by challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet regime,
calling the USSR an ‘evil empire’ doomed to fail.”
— Time’s Strobe Talbott on pre-Olympics U.S.-Soviet relations, May 21, 1984 issue.
“The [Reagan] administration spun the nation out of its
torpor with such fantasies as supply side economics, the nuclear
weapons ‘window of vulnerability,’ and the Strategic Defense
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Editor Harrison Rainie, January 1, 1990.
“Ah yes. The dreaded federal deficit, created, for the
most part, by the most massive peacetime military buildup in America’s
— Reporter Jim Wooten on ABC’s Nightline, January 29, 1990.
“Some say Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by spending so
much on defense that the Kremlin went bankrupt trying to keep up. That
won’t wash. During Reagan’s presidency the United States itself became
a bankrupt country.”
— Commentator (and former anchor) John Chancellor on the November 20, 1990 NBC Nightly News.
“When you talk about the spending during the Reagan
years on defense, you’re talking about absolute abdication of
responsibility to domestic policy and issues in this country, and it’s
totally without regard to the fact that these people were spending
hundreds of dollars on toilet seats, not even this advanced
— Washington Post reporter Juan Williams on Inside Washington, January 19, 1991.
“The Reagan-Bush years took America from the heights of
a rich creditor nation down to a pit of the world’s worst debtor
nation. The reason was weapons purchases. No other expense came close.”
— ABC 20/20 co-host Hugh Downs in an ABC Radio commentary, March 18, 1991.
“The Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended almost
overwhelmingly because of internal contradictions and pressures within
the Soviet Union and the Soviet system itself. And even if Jimmy Carter
had been reelected and been followed by Walter Mondale, something like
what we have now seen probably would have happened.”
— Time Editor-at-Large Strobe Talbott on Inside Washington, September 21, 1991.
“People who want to give Ronald Reagan the entire
credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union ignore the fact that the
Soviet economy was collapsing and the Reagan Administration covered it
up...The CIA concealed what was happening over there so they could keep
the defense budget over here high.”
— Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group, January 15, 1994.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times reporter and columnist:
“Governor, I’m kind of a foreign policy wonk, and it scares the bejesus
out of me to have someone as President of the United States,
Commander-in-Chief, and finger on the nuclear button who is such an
outsider to Washington and American foreign policy.”
Lamar Alexander: “Well, did Ronald Reagan scare you, Tom?”
Friedman: “He sure did.”
Alexander: “Did he? He didn’t scare me. I thought he was the best national defense and Commander-in-Chief and foreign policy President we’ve had since Eisenhower.”
Friedman: “Ask 245 Marines in Beirut about that.”
— Exchange on CBS’s Face the Nation, March 5, 1995.
Reagan and Race
One common media-elite attack on Reagan’s domestic policy was the notion that Reagan was waging “war on the poor,” and that was often a shorthand way of saying a war on black Americans. Using their definition of “civil rights”—anything which adds government-mandated advantages for racial minorities is “civil rights” progress – liberal journalists suggested to less sophisticated readers and viewers that somehow Ronald Reagan was against liberty for minorities. But it often grew worse, with inaccurate psychoanalysis which suggested Reagan was somehow gunning for blacks, encouraging bitter white supremacists by speaking of color-blindness.
Perhaps because they take all their race cues from liberal activist groups, the media ignored how blacks actually prospered in the Reagan years. Even the liberal Joint Center for Political Studies estimated the black middle class grew by one-third from 1980 to 1988, from 3.6 million to 4.8 million. In addition, black employment from 1982 to 1987 grew twice as fast (up 24.9 percent) as white employment. Real black median family income rose 12.7 percent from 1981 to 1987, 46 percent faster than whites. But reporters evaluated Reagan based on the evaluations of liberal friends, not hard data.
“I’m kind of surprised at President Reagan, because
based on his personal history in Hollywood, I’m surprised he has not
been an advocate of civil rights....I had heard that he was very open
minded, broad minded person, that he cared about human rights....But
the record is abysmal.”
— CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl on Howard Cosell’s Speaking of Everything, April 10, 1988.
“At the same time, some experts said, years in which
the Reagan administration questioned the value of racial quotas and
affirmative action made speaking out against such programs acceptable.
This, they contend, made it easier for racists to openly express their
attitudes. Groups like the Klan and the Skinheads have both begun
targeting the young for recruitment.”
— Kirk Johnson in The New York Times, August 27, 1989.
“The right gets away with blaming liberals for their
efforts to help the poor, but what the right is really objecting to is
the fact that the poor are primarily black. The man who sits in the
White House today opposed the Civil Rights Act. So did Ronald Reagan.
This crowd is really fighting a retroactive civil rights war to prevent
the people they dislike because of their color from achieving success
in American life.”
— PBS’s Bill Moyers in an interview with Washington Post Magazine reporter Eric Alterman, September 1, 1991.
“The gap between white and black [life spans] has
remained stubbornly wide, and it increased sharply during the Reagan
years, when many social programs that helped minorities were slashed.”
— Time magazine staff writer Christine Gorman in her article from September 16, 1991, “Why Do Blacks Die Young?”
“We keep looking for some good to come out of this.
Maybe it might help in putting race relations on the front burner,
after they’ve been subjugated for so long as a result of the Reagan
— Bryant Gumbel on the Los Angeles riots, April 30, 1992 Today. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“The Republicans, for 25 years, have seldom avoided the
temptation to play the race card politically in this country....In the
‘70s, Ronald Reagan, and the late ‘70s, he ran for President in 1980
talking about welfare queens, associating the Great Society programs
with minorities, and with waste, and with crime in the streets. There
has been a consistent impulse, Willie Horton was just a continuation of
that, to use this issue to divide people.”
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Steven Roberts on Washington Week in Review, May 8, 1992.
“Emboldened by a sea change during the Reagan-Bush era,
conservatives scolded, ‘it’s all your fault.’ Dismissively this camp
insisted that what blacks need are mainstream American values — read
white values. Go to school, get a job, get married, they exhorted, and
the family will be just fine.”
— Newsweek General Editor Michele Ingrassia, August 30, 1993.
“In the wake of the somewhat new hostilities bred in
the Reagan ‘80s, how do you assess the state of race relations in this
— Bryant Gumbel to National Urban League President Hugh Price, July 28, 1994 Today.
“The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain
in a massive state of denial about the party’s four-decade-long
addiction to race-baiting. They won’t make any headway with blacks by
bashing Lott if they persist in giving Ronald Reagan a pass for his
racial policies....It’s with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting
white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in
the schoolhouse door, that the Republican [Party]’s selective memory
about its race-baiting habit really stands out.”
— Time’s Jack E. White in a column posted on Time.com on December 14, 2002.
The Reagan Legacy
While most media reports acknowledged at Reagan’s death the warmth and charisma of the man, and his powers as a “Great Communicator,” they did not note the strenuous attempts to rebut him by the array of powerful communicators known as the national media elite. The most notable omission in all the gracious obituaries and histories is the media’s own aggressive role in attempting to define the Reagan era down. Reporters, editors, and anchormen fought Reagan’s policies tooth and nail, built a scandal industry to taint Reagan with the “sleaze factor” (which they quickly dropped in the 1990s), and often dismissed him personally as a dangerously bellicose and ignorant man still lost in his old movie roles.
The hostility didn’t end when Reagan left office either. The media continued to paint the Reagan era as a horrific time of low ethics, class warfare on the poor, and crushing government debt. For the first five years of his ex-presidency, the Reagan legacy was still a juicy target for liberal journalists, who blamed his administration for everything from flammable pajamas to sexual harassment in public housing. Only his brain-robbing Alzheimer’s disease put the brakes on media hostility.
Don Regan: “What’s the bottom line of the Reagan Administration? It’s a great record.”
Lesley Stahl: “Bottom line: largest deficits in history, largest debtor nation, can’t afford to fix the housing emergency.”
— Exchange on Face the Nation, May 15, 1988.
“President Reagan was unfair to the poor.”
“He was a rich man’s President.”
“He had a negative view on women’s rights.”
“He was unfair to blacks.”
“He didn’t know what he was doing.”
“He was unfair to the middle class.”
“He was unfair to old people.”
— Statements people were asked to agree or disagree with in Washington Post/ABC News poll released June 30, 1988.
“I think it’s a dangerous failure at least in terms of
programs. A mess in Central America, neglect of the poor, corruption in
government....And the worst legacy of all, the budget deficit, the
impoverishment of our children.”
— U.S. News & World Report Editor Roger Rosenblatt summarizing the Reagan record during CBS News GOP Convention coverage, 1988.
“I think there is a question mark on the domestic
policy: I think he left an uncaring society...a government that was not
— UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas on CBS Nightwatch, December 30, 1988.
“And so it goes with President Bozo...coming to the end
of his eight-year reign, and reign it has been, no matter how it
rained on the poor. The hell with the poor, it’s their own fault; we
all feel that way.”
— Boston Globe Associate Editor and long time reporter David Nyhan, in a December 28, 1988 column.
“I predict historians are going to be totally baffled
by how American people fell in love with this man and followed him the
way we did.”
— CBS’s Lesley Stahl on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas, January 11, 1989.
“He talked about being proud of what’s happened with
the economy, about the millions of new jobs that have been created. And
as I listened to that, I also thought one out of five babies born in
the United States are born into poverty. There are hundreds of
thousands of people in this country now that are homeless, have no
place to live. I wonder, how does your father reconcile that in his
mind? How does he reconcile those two things?”
— CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith to Maureen Reagan on January 12, 1989, the morning after President Reagan’s farewell address.
“In 1984, he would win again. It did not seem to matter
that the deficit was growing; homeless families were in the street;
and real wages were declining. Reagan’s campaign team turned the whole
first term into a movie, featuring the Americans with restored faith.
In 1984, Reagan had persuaded the majority of Americans that it was
morning again in America.”
— Liberal historian Garry Wills narrating the PBS documentary series Frontline, January 18, 1989.
“The borrow-and-spend policies that Ronald Reagan
presided over have bequeathed to his chosen successor a downsized
presidency devoid of the resources to address long neglected domestic
— Reporters Michael Duffy and Richard Hornik in Time, February 20, 1989.
“Analysts will also recognize that Ronald Reagan
presided over a meltdown of the federal government during the last
eight years. Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric
and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to
wide-scale abuse....Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr.
Reagan’s laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry,
the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the
deterioration of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, the dangerous
state of the air traffic control system — not to mention the
— CBS reporter Terence Smith in a New York Times op-ed piece, November 5, 1989.
“In the 1980s the minimum wage has really lived up to
its name. Since it was last raised to $3.35 an hour in 1981, inflation
has eroded its purchasing power by 27 percent. Meanwhile, the Reagan
era became famous for skyrocketing maximum wages as greed became
fashionable throughout the land.”
— Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo, November 13, 1989.
Bill Moyers: “When it comes to visuals, do you miss Ronald Reagan?”
CBS’s Lesley Stahl: “Well, I guess as a television reporter yes, but as an American citizen, no.”
— Exchange on PBS’s Bill Moyers: The Public Mind, November 22, 1989.
“The decade had its highs (Gorbachev, Bird)...
...and the decade had its lows (Reagan, AIDS)”
— Boston Globe headlines over ‘80s reviews by the paper’s columnists, December 28, 1989.
“By ‘selling the sizzle’ of Reagan, as his aide Michael
Deaver put it, the administration spun the nation out of its torpor
with such fantasies as supply-side economics, the nuclear weapons
‘window of vulnerability,’ and the Strategic Defense Initiative.”
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Editor Harrison Rainie, December 25, 1989/January 1, 1990.
“It will take 100 years to get the government back into
place after Reagan. He hurt people: the disabled, women, nursing
mothers, the homeless.”
— White House reporter Sarah McClendon in USA Today, February 16, 1990.
“The missteps, poor efforts and setbacks brought on by
the Reagan years have made this a more sober Earth Day. The task seems
— Today co-host Bryant Gumbel, April 20, 1990.
“We went through a trance with a mesmerizing leader and
enjoyed the moment. You remember it was good morning again, morning
again in America, and the sun was always coming up. No dark clouds,
live for the moment, don’t worry about the debts, don’t worry about
tomorrow, don’t worry about paying them off, don’t worry about the
long-term future. And I think that’s the legacy....I don’t think I said
the most lawless. I think the record is the worst since the Harding
years and that’s probably saying about the same thing.”
— Former Washington Post editor Haynes Johnson discussing his Reagan-bashing book Sleepwalking Through History, March 12, 1991 Today.
“By many measures, the Reagan Administration was a
failure. It left us with a huge debt and an unfocused domestic policy.
It got us in a moral mess with Irangate and a military disaster in
— NBC News President Michael Gartner reviewing Lou Cannon’s book, President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime in The Washington Post, April 21, 1991.
“It’s been called a legacy of the ‘80s, left on the
sidewalks of America. An economic lesson about shrinking resources and
growing needs in every major city. In Los Angeles, the welfare line
starts at dawn and grows all day.”
— Reporter Richard Roth on the November 7, 1991 CBS Evening News.
“The amazing thing is most people seem content to
believe that almost everybody had a good time in the ‘80s, a real shot
at the dream. But the fact is, they didn’t. Did we wear blinders? Did
we think the ‘80s just left behind the homeless? The fact is that
almost nine in ten Americans actually saw their lifestyle decline.”
— NBC reporter Keith Morrison, February 7, 1992 Nightly News. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“You place responsibility for the death of your
daughter squarely at the feet of the Reagan administration. Do you
believe they’re responsible for that?”
— NBC reporter Maria Shriver interviewing AIDS sufferer Elizabeth Glaser, July 14, 1992 Democratic convention coverage.
“The subtext of the recovery-and-healing line is that
America is a self-abusive binger that must go through recovery. Thus:
the nation borrowed and spent recklessly in the 1980s, drank too deeply
of Reagan fantasies about ‘Morning in America’ and supply-side
economics. And now, on the morning after, the U.S. wakes up at the
moment of truth and looks in the mirror. Hence: America needs the
‘courage to change’ in a national atmosphere of recovery, repentance
— Time Senior Writer Lance Morrow welcoming the Clinton presidency, Jan. 4, 1993.
“We have seen in the past, during Reagan-Bush
administration days, when huge slashes went through, when entire
programs were dismantled, and what ends up being left sometimes in its
wake is the sort of vacuum and chaos and even more problems than were
there to begin with.”
— CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith responding to Pat Buchanan’s criticism of the Clinton “Reinventing Government” report, September 8, 1993.
“The number of measles cases in the US plummeted from
27,786 in 1990 to just 2,237 last year. Apparently the epidemic that
raged through the preschool population after President Reagan cut funds
for immunization has finally run its course.”
— Time’s “Health Report” in “The Week” section, October 18, 1993.
“I don’t shield my politics in this book, as I do in
much of my journalism, as I’ve been disciplined to do. The Reagan years
oppressed me because of the callousness and the greed and the
hard-hearted attitude toward people who have very little in this
society, so all of that came together at around age 40 for me.”
— New York Times editorial page editor and former Washington bureau chief Howell Raines on the PBS talk show Charlie Rose, November 17, 1993. (With WMV video/MP3 audio)
“Aren’t you worried that we’re going to go back to the
days when Ronald Reagan suggested that ketchup and relish be designated
— Katie Couric to Rep. Duke Cunningham, February 22, 1995 Today. (Reagan never suggested that).
“In the corporate takeovers of the 1980s, the Reagan administration was a wallflower at the orgy.”
— First sentence of Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo’s February 27, 1995 sidebar on Microsoft anti-trust settlement.
“You can look at the economics of Reaganism, for
example, or some of the bombast of his foreign policy, and find all
manner of flaws in there.”
— NBC’s Tom Brokaw on PBS’s Charlie Rose, May 2, 1996.
“An awful lot of people, Cal, decided during the Reagan
years that this could be done painlessly. Remember Ronald Reagan, your
old buddy, he used to say, you know, ‘All you’ve got to do is cut
waste, fraud, and abuse, cut welfare, cut foreign aid,’ and that’s how
you would solve the problem. Reaganism never involved pain for
God-fearing, taxpaying, hard-working middle Americans. Now, finally,
the Reagan fantasy is coming face to face with reality.”
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Steven Roberts on CNBC’s Cal Thomas show, May 16, 1995.
“Although most Americans benefitted, the gap between
the richest and poorest became a chasm. Donald Trump and the new
billionaires of the 1980s recalled the extravagance of the captains of
industry in the 1880s. There were losers. Cuts in social programs
created a homeless population that grew to exceed that of Atlanta. AIDS
became an epidemic in the 1980s, nearly 50,000 died. Reagan largely
— Narrator of PBS American Experience profile of Ronald Reagan, February 24, 1998.
“Even without evidence of a direct link to the Oval
Office, Iran-contra had portrayed the President as either a figurehead
in a rogue government or an impotent and forgetful leader whose lack of
attention to detail had finally caught up with him and the nation. To
the problems of homelessness, AIDS, the skyrocketing budget deficit,
and a frightening arms buildup could now be added a morally suspect
foreign policy. And this, from the man who had made a return to an
old-fashioned moral ethic central to his national plan.”
— ABC anchor Peter Jennings and co-author Todd Brewster in The Century, a book reviewing events between 1900 and 1999.
“Reagan turned the country to the right. There was a
Reagan revolution, a very conservative revolution, and it was social
Darwinism. If you can’t make it, tough. I mean, he did not believe in
social welfare and, but at the same time, he did build up our military.
He had a secret plan to spend one trillion dollars on new arms when he
— Former UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas speaking at a March 3 Newseum session shown by C-SPAN on March 4, 2002.