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Ronald Reagan: Overcoming a Fierce First Draft of History

The 40th President and the Press: The Record

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 Future”
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 years.”
— 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.

1992-01-22-NBCTODAY“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 the economy!”
— 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 debt.”
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 nightmare.”
— 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.