The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, June 11, 2004

That Reagan media touch: a couple of useful explorations

How Ronald Reagan turned Woodward and Bernstein into Charlie McCarthy is a theme that is all over, and sometimes well done. But a couple of particularly interesting pieces get me to break the Plawg rule [1].

Eric Boehlert in Salon today captures in 2,500 words some fine examples of media fawning past and present.

From 1986 (Lance Morrow in Time):
Ronald Reagan is a sort of masterpiece of American magic -- apparently one of the simplest, most uncomplicated creatures alive, and yet a character of rich meanings, of complexities that connect him with the myths and powers of his country in an unprecedented way. He is a Prospero of American memories, a magician who carries a bright, ideal America like a holograph in his mind and projects its image in the air.

I'm wondering whether there were encomia to Margaret Thatcher in her heyday from the Daily Telegraph (aka Torygraph) quite as grandiloquent as that.

Boelhert calls on old Walter Pincus for a seasoning of snark:
The rules were different for him. Reagan got all sorts of passes from the press.

That's snark directed at the media, of course. And from David Gergen:
A lot of the Teflon came from the press. They didn't want to go after him that toughly. There is no question in my mind there was more willingness to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt than there was [for Presidents] Carter or Ford.

The explanation for this eagerness to rim on the part of the press offered by ex-Post-man Haynes Johnson:
...the press, in addition to genuinely liking Reagan as a man, was acutely aware of the charges by conservatives that it had a liberal, unpatriotic bias. And that defensiveness translated into deferential treatment. "The press wanted to bend over backward not to be seen as part of the liberal establishment agenda," says Johnson. "I was conscious of it myself."

And from journo Robert Parry:
Coming out of Watergate, there was a feeling within the press that we'd gone too far.

An alternative explanation - call it a hypothesis - is that the media were taking the line of least resistance. Their job was to maintain advertising revenue: confrontational stories like Watergate could do it, but at a cost in management time and editorial ulcers. Good news stories could also do it, with peace and goodwill between government and press. Which would you choose?

Only a short while ago, we had the controversy over CBS's Reagan miniseries [2]. It's tempting to think that part of the zeal in GOP circles to marmelise the network over the issue was to send a signal that post mortem coverage had better damned well be respectful.

Boehlert quotes CBS anchor Dan Rather from this week:
since Reagan was "a twice-elected, two-full-term president, ... [this] is not the time for a seminar on his strengths and weaknesses."

Mission accomplished, I'd say.

We get an insight into the MO during the Reagan presidency of that bedrock of American journalism, the Associated Press:
"We used to do a fact-checking exercise after his press conferences at AP," says Parry, referring to Reagan's tendency to manufacture or wildly misstate facts and figures. "And we got such hostility from David Gergen at the White House, and publishers who didn't like it, that AP backed off and dropped it. That was one of the ways we were not as tough or as skeptical as we should have been."

Once you have AP by the balls, most of the US media's hearts and minds tend to follow.

And an insight into the Washington Post:
When [Parry] went to Newsweek in 1987, "it soon became clear they didn't want to pursue the Iran-Contra story much at all. They didn't want another Watergate -- that's the way it was put. The magazine was owned by the Washington Post, and although people look back on Watergate as a crowning achievement, it was a very unpleasant experience to live through, and [publisher] Katharine Graham didn't want to go through it again. So the feeling at Newsweek was, Let's just take what the White House is telling us, the 'mistakes were made' explanation."

And not only the Post was culpable:
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke (exposed by a Lebanese newspaper, not an American one), newspaper editors and TV anchors around the country -- including CBS's Rather - cautioned their staffs not to repeat the "excesses" and "mistakes" of the Watergate era, according to a Dec. 5, 1986, article in the New York Times. It was almost as if news executives were demanding passive and restrained reporting. Respected, centrist "NBC Nightly News" commentator John Chancellor seemed to speak for many in the national press corps in early 1987 when, breathing a sigh of relief when it appeared the worst had passed for Reagan on Iran-Contra, he said, "Nobody wants [Reagan] to fail. Nobody wants another Nixon."...

The US media didn't consistently fail with Reagan from the effect of some Tulipmania-like Popular Delusion - it was a cold, hard business decision.

The second piece that caught my eye is Jay Rosen's of June 9 on Lesley Stahl's famous Reagan anecdote about a 1984 piece she did about Reagan's credibility gap [3]:
I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.

But that isn't what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. "Way to go, kiddo," he said to Stahl. "What a great piece. We loved it." Stahl replied, "Didn't you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?" Darman's answer has been frequently quoted:

"Nobody heard what you said."

Did I hear him right? "Come again?"

"You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."

Or, put another way, Put down your weapon and come out with your hands up.

A propaganda coup on the scale of Operation Fortitude, thanks to Stahl's eagerness to repeat the story has woven it into a conventional wisdom, and sewn it into the quilt of CWs with which the media keep themselves safe from actual thought.

Like a judo throw, where you use the weight of your opponent against him, far more economical than the sort of serial ranting that was Tony Blair's media manipulator in chief, Alastair Campbell's favourite tactic.

For you, journo, the war is over.

Rosen points out that part of the power of the thing is what he calls the third party effect: the Darman Principle is known to us initiates, but not to the poor saps out there in TV-Land.

Whilst Reagan communicated to Joe Public with big ideas simply expressed that did not require mediation to make satisfactory sense. The filter was cut out of the loop.

  1. I generally go where the "in" crowd isn't.

  2. Start with my November 5 2003 piece; at the time, the controversy over the FCC's proposed relaxation in the media concentration rules seemed the most plausible explanation for CBS's capitulation (trace back from November 26 piece.)

  3. Darman is Dick Darman - Richard Darman, now of the Carlyle Group, in 1984, Assistant to the President, apparently.

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