Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wonders why much of the coverage of Ronald Reagan at the time he was president is so different from the way he is being revered today. It’s a good question. Kurtz doesn’t have the right answer.
I was in Washington, D.C. at the time, documenting the anti-Reagan media bias for Accuracy in Media and other groups. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post said that covering the Iran-Contra affair was as much fun as Watergate. He thought they’d nail another Republican president. The sharks smelled blood in the water. I met Reagan at a White House Christmas party and presented him with a button that AIM had made up showing a shark with a big “X” on it. I gave it to Reagan, he laughed, and he told wife Nancy: “That means ‘no.’”
In the end, of course, they didn’t nail Reagan on Iran-Contra. The sharks had to feed on lesser prey. Reagan didn’t have the details about the arms deals with Iran and the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, the Contras, and National Security Council staff member Oliver North and others took the fall. The Iran part of it was designed to free American hostages in the Middle East. It worked for a while. The Contra part was designed to keep the resistance alive while the liberal Congress, led by Senator John Kerry, tried to destroy it. Reagan, North and the freedom fighters ultimately prevailed. We still have many problems in the Middle East but Central America is free of communism.
So why is the coverage of Reagan’s death favorable? Kurtz says there is a tendency in the media to say nice things after someone has died. “More important,” he adds, “a man’s legacy looks very different 15 years after he leaves the White House, and following a long illness that took him out of the political wars. No one knew when Reagan stepped down that his military buildup would ultimately play a role in the demise of the evil empire he railed against.”
It is possible, of course, that the media recognize that Reagan’s anti-communism produced dividends for the U.S. and the world. I think it’s doubtful. Remember that reporters at the time, such as Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, said journalists regarded left-wing groups in Central America as the “good guys.” This included the Nicaraguan Communist Sandinistas, who seized power in 1979 with the help of then-President Jimmy Carter, and the communist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador. Reagan opposed these groups. His policy of supporting the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, or Contras, resulted in the demise of these and other anti-American terrorists movements in the region.
Reporters are trying to appear pro-Reagan because they don’t want to be perceived as completely out-of-touch with the sentiments of the American people. I don’t really think that journalists ever liked his policies, then or now. The recent Pew Research Center survey indicates the press is even more liberal than it used to be. This is why, I believe, that traditional liberal news organizations are losing readers and viewers and why conservative outlets, such as talk radio and Fox News, have grown in popularity.
Reporters are aware of these results, even though the findings have not been widely publicized. But a more recent Pew Research poll is even more significant. It confirmed that Fox News Channel is making dramatic gains in attracting conservative and Republican viewers. A perceived conservative news organization is enjoying incredible success.
Fox, of course, is not necessarily conservative. Bill O’Reilly rejects the label, and several hosts, including Greta Van Susteren, are regarded as being to the left. The new host of Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace, is the son of liberal media icon Mike Wallace. But Fox does provide conservatives and Republicans with access, and for that they are clearly grateful. Plus, Fox covers a lot of news of interest to conservatives.
At the Brookings Institution forum where the latest Pew results were released, panelists decried the “polarization” of the media. They didn’t like the fact that conservatives were drifting toward Fox News while liberals and Democrats were sticking with news organization such as National Public Radio and CNN. I submit they don’t like this development because it spells more trouble for liberals, a far smaller percentage of the general population, and their preferred media. I told the panel that “polarization” was a healthy development and that it would continue. I don’t think a burst of pro-Reagan coverage by the liberal media will affect the trend toward more conservative-oriented media. But the liberal media seem to be showing some awareness of the trend that is threatening their existence.