Fade-Out: Ronald Reagan's Death Brought out the Best and the Worst of the American News Media

By Kunkel, Thomas | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Fade-Out: Ronald Reagan's Death Brought out the Best and the Worst of the American News Media


Kunkel, Thomas, American Journalism Review


In the harsh slanting light of the setting sun, Nancy Reagan bent to her husband's casket. She caressed it, as if it were fine porcelain, then lay her head upon it. Stoic all through a difficult week, she finally yielded to her emotions and quivered with grief. Daughter Patti moved in on her left to support her, as did son Ron at her right. A little awkwardly, stepson Michael did the same immediately behind her. Together they formed a triangular composition reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. Anguish was written on the face of all four.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The scene was so raw and heartbreaking that under normal circumstances it would have constituted an invasion of privacy. But, of course, every moment of that extraordinary week had been carefully orchestrated by President Reagan's family precisely for the cameras. And the cameras obliged, as constant as those California hills the Gipper loved so well.

One could argue that Reagan Week showed the American media at their best and worst. By the time you're reading this, Reagan's funeral will have passed like that Friday sunset, superseded by Bill Clinton's memoirs, the handover of Iraq and the presidential campaign. But I think the event is worth lingering over for what it says about the state of our industry, and not a little about the state of our country.

It shouldn't have been surprising to see such an outpouring of respect, affection and grief. Ronald Reagan was a hero to millions, and even those who detested his politics had to concede he was a principled politician and likeable man. Beyond that, America post-9/11 was desperate to celebrate a time when the future held more promise than dread.

But the initial burst of news coverage would have you believe that Reagan was a cross between Abe Lincoln and Mother Teresa, with an overlay of Mister Rogers. Television, as has become typical in the big stories, was the worst offender, turning Reagan's life and death into visual wallpaper. But the torrent of worshipful, uncritical newspaper coverage--open page after open page--was scarcely better.

So we got several unbroken days of Morning in America and Tear Down This Wall, with nary a mention of Iran-Contra, Grenada, recessionary tax cuts, AIDS or polluting trees. It was as if the press of 2004 had forgotten the press of 1984. Finally a few observers, such as Washington Post media maven Howard Kurtz, could take it no more.

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