Beloved by the Media

Article excerpt

Ronald Reagan lived a charmed life in many respects, none more so than in his relationship with the news media. Indeed, his accomplishments as President are impossible to understand without recognizing the way he and his advisers turned the media, especially television, into a national megaphone for his policies. Most obituaries of Reagan have noted the decisive role that public relations played in his White House, and it's true that the former actor's PR apparatus pioneered or perfected many of the news-management techniques now taken for granted by press and public alike. The media's own complicity in the process has generally gone unmentioned, however, perhaps because it is journalists who write the obituaries. Although the Reagan White House did not shrink from censoring news, most famously during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the taming of the media during the Reagan years was mostly self-inflicted.

Reagan's own advisers admitted as much. Reagan was called the Teflon President because blame never stuck to him, an outcome reporters attributed to his sunny personality. But David Gergen, the former White House communications director, told me, "A lot of the Teflon came because the press was holding back. I don't think they wanted to go after him that toughly." Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, agreed: "We have been kinder to President Reagan than any President...since I've been at the Post."

In On Bended Knee, a book about the press and Reagan based on interviews with scores of journalists, news executives and Administration officials, I documented numerous cases of self-censorship. The management of CBS News, allegedly the most liberal of America's TV networks, ordered its Washington bureau--in particular White House correspondent Lesley Stahl--to tone down criticism of Reagan because ordinary Americans supposedly didn't want to hear it. At the New York Times, correspondent Raymond Bonner was pulled off the Central America beat after his expose of a civilian massacre by US-trained forces in El Salvador angered Administration officials and their right-wing allies at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. A camera crew for ABC News filmed troops on their way to Grenada and got confirmation of the impending invasion from US officials in the region, but their executive producer in New York trusted an off-the-record denial by the Pentagon more than his own reporters and killed the story.

But the friendly coverage of Reagan usually had less dramatic explanations. One was technical: Reagan and his PR apparatus knew how to get their desired message across while satisfying the media's appetite for interesting stories and appealing visuals. The apparatus understood the value of repetition--in an information-saturated society, only messages that get repeated can pierce the static and register on the public consciousness--and they pursued it with discipline and skill. …