As the media spent an entire week memorializing Ronald Reagan, journalists redefined the former president's life and accomplishments with a stream of hagiographies that frequently skewed the facts and glossed over scandal and criticism.
"Ronald Reagan was the most popular president ever to leave office," explained ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas. "His approval ratings were higher than any other at the end of his second term." Though the claim was repeated by many news outlets, it is not true; Bill Clinton's approval ratings when he left office were actually higher than Reagan's (66 percent versus Reagan's 63 percent). In general, Reagan's popularity tended to be greatly overstated by journalists. Through most of his presidency, he did not rate much higher than other post-World War II presidents, and his 52 percent average approval rating for his presidency places him sixth out of the past 10 presidents.
Mainstream media relied heavily on Republicans and former Reagan officials to tell the story of Reagan and his accomplishments, which resulted in a decidedly one-sided version of events. A June 7 article in the New York Times on Reagan's impact claimed that Reagan "was almost always popular and, many now say, usually right." But six of the eight sources the article quoted were former Reagan staffers or Republicans, one was longtime Reagan devotee Margaret Thatcher, and one was a professor who gave no argument that Reagan was "right" about anything.
Should readers be surprised that Reagan's friends and former colleagues still think he was right?
Television news displayed an even more pronounced reliance on Reagan's Republican admirers, which may have provided an intimate view of the former president, but it yielded virtually no acknowledgment of his flaws. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, when questioned by CNN's Anderson Cooper to name Reagan's greatest weakness or failing, responded, "I'm not going to criticize the President. And even if I wanted to, I would never do it on an occasion such as this." And so the public received glowing accounts of Reagan's influence over world politics and the direction of the Republican Party, two subjects which dominated the media's Reagan tributes. But more often than not, the more controversial aspects of Reagan's legacy were either downplayed or recast as footnotes.
Reagan's fervent support for right-wing governments in Central America was one of the defining foreign policies of his administration, and the fact that death squads associated with those governments murdered tens of thousands of civilians surely must be included in any reckoning of Reagan's successes and failures. But virtually no mainstream news outlets even mentioned the death squads in discussing Reagan's legacy. And most journalists kept silent about the fact that Reagan's policy of supporting Islamicist insurgents against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan led to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Similarly neglected in the media was the Reagan administration's significant support for Saddam Hussein-including providing him with ingredients for biological weapons.
The Iran-Contra scandal, which loomed too large to ignore, was often written off by journalists. "As we look back today, it's like just a speck in the eight years of his presidency," explained CNN's Judy Woodruff. The rare opportunities for critical reflection about Reagan's policies were turned into additional evidence of his strength, as when Time magazine suggested, "Even when his views were most intransigentÃ¯Â¿Â½when he wondered out loud whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist or failed for nearly all of his presidency to speak the word AIDS even once-- Reagan gave Reaganism a human face."
Some reporters now seem to think that the main lesson learned from the Reagan years was not to be critical. As ABC's Sam Donaldson put it, "Reporters over the years made the mistake of saying, 'Well, he made this mistake, he made this mistake. He got that fact wrong.' The American public got it right. It didn't matter."
As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today: "For networks that are accused of being liberal, this is a way for them to show that they are fair." One would hope that such an overwhelmingly uncritical assessment of important political and historical matters would not meet anyone's definition of "fair" journalism.
Julie Hollar is communications director and Peter Hart is an analyst with the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). FAIR is the New York City-based, national media watch group that offers well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship.