excerpts from the book

On Bended Knee

The Press and the Reagan Presidency

by Mark Hertsgaard

Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988


We have been kinder to President Reagan than any President that I can remember since I've been at the Post."

So said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, some four months before the November 1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan. Three years later, after the Iran-Contra affair had shattered Mr. Reagan's previous image of invincibility, I asked the legendary editor if he still stood by his statement. He did. Stressing that this was "all totally subconscious," Bradlee explained that when Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1980, journalists at the Post sensed that "here comes a really true conservative.... And we are known-though I don't think justifiably-as the great liberals. So, [we thought] we've got to really behave ourselves here. We've got to not be arrogant, make every effort to be informed, be mannerly, be fair. And we did this. I suspect in the process that this paper and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride, but they didn't use the same standards on him that they used on Carter and on Nixon."

Even with all that eventually went wrong-the Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, the seemingly endless series of criminal investigations of former top White House officials-the overall press coverage of the Reagan administration was extraordinarily positive. It is rare indeed for public officials to express satisfaction with their press coverage-in the words of NBC News White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell, "Politicians always say they want a fair press, when what they really want is a positive press"-but the men in charge of media and public relations in the Reagan White House were, almost unanimously, quite pleased with how their President was treated.

James Baker, White House chief of staff during the first term and Secretary of the Treasury during the second, told me, "There were days and times and events we might have some complaint about, [but] on balance and generally speaking, I don't think we had anything to complain about in terms of first-term press coverage. "

David Gergen, former White House director of communications, confirmed shortly after leaving the administration in January 1984 that President Reagan and most of his advisers had come to believe that the basic goal of their approach to the news media-"to correct the imbalance of power with the press so that the White House will once again achieve a 'margin of safety' "- had finally been attained.

Most expansive of all was Michael Deaver, the first-term deputy chief of staff and a virtual surrogate son to the Reagans. Deaver wrote in his memoirs that up until the Iran-contra scandal broke, "Ronald Reagan enjoyed the most generous treatment by the press of any President in the postwar era. He knew it, and liked the distinction."

How Reagan managed to elude critical news coverage for so long baffled many political observers, not least news executives and journalists themselves.

"I don't know how to explain why he hasn't been as vulnerable to the onslaught of the American press as some previous Presidents; it is a hard subject for me," said ABC News executive vice president David Burke. Agreeing with Ben Bradlee about the extraordinary kindness of Reagan's press coverage, he continued, "I wonder why. It isn't because he intimidates us. It isn't that he blows us away with logic. So what the hell is it?"

Burke, a former top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, finally settled on a variation of the Great Communicator theory, long favored by journalists and White House aides alike for explaining Reagan's positive public image. The key, in this view, was Reagan himself. His personal gifts-an amiable personality, sincere manner, perfect vocal delivery and photogenic persona-made him the television era equivalent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin; he played a tune so gay and skipped ahead so cheerily that others could not help but trust and follow him. To attack such a man ~ was unthinkable. "You just can't get the stomach to go after the guy," explained Burke. "It's not a popularity thing, it's not that we're afraid of getting the public mad at us. I think it is a perception that the press has in general of Reagan, that he is a decent man. He is not driven by insecurities, by venality, by conspiracies and back-room tactics."

Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, also felt that Reagan got "a more positive press than he deserves," a feat for which Brokaw credited the White House staff as well as the President. "In part it goes back to who he is," said Brokaw, "and his strong belief in who he is. He's not trying to reinvent himself every day as Jimmy Carter was.... Ronald Reagan reminds me of a lot of CEOs I know who run big companies and spend most of their time on their favorite charitable events or lunch with their pals and kind of have a broad-based philosophy of how they want their companies run. Reagan's got that kind of broad-based philosophy about how he wants the government run, and he's got all these killers who are willing and able to do that for him."

The "killers" primarily responsible for generating positive press coverage of Reagan were Michael Deaver and David Gergen, and if they did not exactly get away with murder, they came pretty close. Deaver, Gergen and their colleagues effectively rewrote the rules of presidential image-making. On the basis of a sophisticated analysis of the American news media-how it worked, which buttons to push when, what techniques had and had not worked for previous administrations-they introduced a new model for packaging the nation's top politician and using the press to sell him to the American public. Their objective was not simply to tame the press but to transform it into an unwitting mouthpiece of the government; it was one of Gergen's guiding assumptions that the administration simply could not govern effectively unless it could "get the right story out" through the "filter" of the press.

The extensive public relations apparatus assembled within the Reagan White House did most of its work out of sight-in private White House meetings each morning to set the "line of the day" that would later be fed to the press; in regular phone calls to the television networks intended to influence coverage of Reagan on the evening news; in quiet executive orders imposing extraordinary new government secrecy measures, including granting the FBI and CIA permission to infiltrate the press. It was Mike Deaver's special responsibility to provide a constant supply of visually attractive, prepackaged news stories-the kind that network television journalists in particular found irresistible. Of course, it helped enormously that the man being sold was an ex-Hollywood actor. As James Lake, press secretary of the Reagan-Bush campaign, acknowledged, Ronald Reagan was "the ultimate presidential commodity . . . the right product."

The Reagan public relations model was based on a simple observation, articulated to me by longtime Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin: "There's no question that how the press reports [on] the President influences how people feel about the President. People make up their minds on the basis of what they see and hear about him, and the press is the conduit through which they get a lot of their information." Because the news media were the unavoidable intermediary between the President and the public, Wirthlin, Deaver, Gergen, Baker and their colleagues focused their talents on controlling to the maximum extent possible what news reports said about the President and his policies. The more influence they could exercise over how Reagan's policies were portrayed in the press; the greater were the White House's chances of implementing those policies without triggering widespread disaffection or endangering Mr. Reagan's re-election chances.

To be sure, Reagan's was hardly the first administration to establish a public relations apparatus within the White House. But few, if any, administrations had exalted news management to as central a role in the theory and practice of governance as Reagan's did. Leslie Janka, a deputy White House press secretary who resigned in protest after the administration excluded the press from the Grenada invasion, went so far as to say, "The whole thing was PR. This was a PR outfit that became President and took over the country. And to the degree then to which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first, last, and overarching activity was public relations."

What made relations with the press especially vital to the success of Reagan's presidency was the fact that much of his agenda was at odds with popular sentiment. On the basic political issues f his day, Ronald Reagan was much farther to the right than the majority of his fellow citizens. (Contrary to the widely accepted conventional wisdom of the time, American mass opinion in the late 1970s and early 1980s was not galloping to the right. As political economists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have demonstrated, public opinion was shifting, if anything, slightly leftward during that period, with Reagan's policies themselves apparently providing some of the impetus.)

Reagan's 1981 economic recovery program (for example) combined significant cuts in social spending and federal regulations with fantastic tax reductions aimed overwhelmingly at the very wealthiest Americans. In the name of free enterprise, the administration advocated a massive subsidy program for America's corporations and rich citizens not an easy thing to sell to average working- and middle-class Americans. Yet Reagan emerged from his first presidential summer gloriously triumphant, with Capitol Hill Democrats and Washington reporters alike convinced- falsely, as it happened-that he was the most popular President in decades.

The Reagan model worked so well that the relationship between the White House and the press will never be the same again. Long after Ronald Reagan has left the White House, the model of news management introduced during his tenure will remain behind, shaping press coverage and therefore public perception. Republican and Democratic candidates alike are relying on elements of the Reagan model in their respective quests for the presidency in 1988, and it is virtually certain to inform the media strategy of whoever succeeds Reagan as President in 1989.

David Gergen was so proud of what the Reagan apparatus accomplished that he told me it would be "worthwhile to institutionalize some of the approaches Reagan has taken toward press events, in order to make it work" for future Presidents. Jody Powell, President Carter's press secretary, and a man who knew a thing or two himself about manipulating the press, was convinced that future administrations would indeed copy the Reagan strategy of news management, but argued that the American people would be the poorer for it.

"There are a lot of people going to school on this administration," said Powell, "and one of the lessons is that the press's bark is much worse than its bite. They'll huff and puff around, but in the end you can cut severely into the flow of information and manage it with a much firmer hand than we were able or willing to do.... If you as much as say to the administration, which is what the press is doing, 'Look, you can do this and there's not a damn thing we can do about it,' they're damn sure going to do it. It's too much of a temptation for frail mortals to bear."

Understanding the Reagan propaganda operation is essential if Americans are to make sense of what happened to their country and their politics during the Reagan era. But there is more to the story than slick skullduggery on the part of power-hungry politicos. Precisely because the Reagan PR model seems destined to become an enduring feature of presidential politics in this country, it is crucial to examine how the American press responded to it. After all, in the U.S. system, it is the job of the press to find and present the truth despite officially erected obstacles. As Tom Brokaw commented, "I can't point my finger at [the Reagan White House]. I think they're doing what they need to do, and if there's a failure, it's ultimately the press's failure." ...

"In a previous time, reporters may have viewed themselves as outsiders. They didn't belong to the inner circle to the degree they do now, when relatively well-paid reporters and government officials can move in the same social circles," observed ABC News Washington bureau chief George Watson. "I went to a dinner party with a reporter [of ours] in early 1985 where there was the Attorney General, the Israeli ambassador, a prominent senator. That happens more than it used to. Today as never before our reporters are part of the town's elite, which seems a reasonable factor in explaining why there is less of an adversarial tone in the coverage [of Washington]."

In a country where politics had increasingly become a contest of images rather than ideas, there was a certain bizarre inevitability about a B-grade movie star finally being elected President. Administration officials usually played down Reagan's acting abilities, conceding at most that his personality was what made him such a good salesman. But in a not-for-attribution interview, one former White House aide made a rare admission: "He's an actor. He's used to being directed and produced. He stands where he is supposed to and delivers his lines, he reads beautifully, he knows how to wait for the applause line. You know how some guys are good salesmen but can't ask the customers to give them the order? This guy is good for asking for the order, and getting it."

If Reagan was the star, Mike Deaver was the director who knew just what it took to inspire the best possible performance from his man. Such relationships, at their best, are a product of a certain delicate chemistry between the two individuals involved, and thus are virtually impossible to replicate. After leaving the White House, Deaver noticed the difference in Reagan's public persona, particularly during his disastrous November 19, 1986, press conference about the administration's arms sales to Iran. "He wasn't well prepared for that," he remarked. "Particularly on an issue like that, the last thing you want to do is brief him or cram him full of answers, because the answers were all there. Reagan is basically a performer. What you really need to do is what a director would do, and that is set the stage and get his mind in the right position. He should have bounced into that press conference. [Instead] he walked down that hall. Somebody probably told him, 'Now, be serious tonight.' Absolutely wrong coaching!"

Perhaps Reagan's strongest communications attribute was his image as a nice guy. "A lot of what we've done [was] because of Ronald Reagan and his warm personality," observed Joanna Bistany. "You can get away with a lot, because he can then come up and defuse the antagonism." And not just among the public, one might add, but among the press. Although the President harbored a certain condescension toward reporters-"He thinks of the press as poor souls who can be saved by the redemption of his superior knowledge," commented Reagan speechwriter Kenneth Khachigian-his bantering friendliness toward them paid off.

"Jimmy Carter you felt sorry for, but he was aloof and hard to get to know," said Susan Zirinsky. "But Reagan always made you laugh. It was hard not to like him."

"I would agree that Reagan has gotten the breaks in terms of press coverage," acknowledged Maynard Parker, editor of Newsweek, "for the reason that most reporters covering him genuinely like the man and find it difficult to be as tough as they might like."

John Sears, Reagan's (and Nixon's) former presidential campaign manager, thought that journalists' fondness for Reagan was what encouraged gentle press coverage of the so-called gaffe problem-the President's frequent practice of unburdening himself of statements that were demonstrably false, silly or otherwise politically unwise. "If Jimmy Carter were making these mistakes, he would be treated much worse," said Sears. "The press didn't like Carter on the level of a personal human being. But they like Reagan, and this affects their intensity factor."

Mr. Reagan's personal strengths and abilities were such that two of the closest observers of his political career argued that the White House propaganda apparatus deserved but marginal credit for his presidential achievements. "I don't [think] the White House press apparatus has anything to do with what Reagan has accomplished," declared Washington Post correspondent Lou Cannon, who was widely acknowledged by colleagues and competitors alike as the single most knowledgeable reporter about Reagan. Cannon, who had covered Reagan since the beginning of his political career in California, added, "Ronald Reagan was able to shift the direction of the debate when he didn't have Mike Deaver and he didn't have the White House.... The fact is that Reagan himself is the guy who does this."

"One reason we were so good at [managing news] is we had a candidate who just comes across a hell of a lot better," explained Lyn Nofziger. "You could have put the Reagan staff in there with Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter still wouldn't have come out good. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.... Ronald Reagan is the best candidate. I'm not talking about ability to govern, but the best candidate from the standpoint of understanding instinctively what you have to do to get favorable coverage for the kind of media we have today-my mother could have run his campaign and he'd still have been elected President.... I don't mean to belittle Mike Deaver, he did a fine job, but I would like to have seen him working with Ford or Carter or Nixon and then come back and tell me."

In response, Deaver said that "90 percent of [Reagan's] success is the man himself," but he maintained that the apparatus had nonetheless played a vital role: "What we did was strategize for periods of time what we wanted the story [about the administration] to be and [we then] created visuals to go with that story. I don't think television coverage will ever be the same. We really did something to change that.

"We would take a theme, which we usually worked on for six weeks say, the economy," Deaver explained. "The President would say the same thing, but we had a different visual for every one of those stops. They see the President out at an auto plant because imports are down and American cars are up. They see the President at a high-tech plant in Boston because high-tech means jobs. Pretty soon it begins to soak in, pretty soon people begin to believe the economy is getting better."

One striking example of the way the White House public relations machinery-from the Blair House strategists down to press officers and event organizers-operated in nearly perfect synchronization was the public relations blitz on the theme of education that Deaver directed in 1983. In response to polls indicating a two-to-one public disapproval of Reagan's cutbacks in federal aid to education, the Blair House group ordered a communications offensive that emphasized "excellence in education," merit pay for teachers and greater classroom discipline. The end result was to reverse the polling figures to a two-to-one support for Reagan, without the actual Reagan policy changing at all.

"The President himself made some twenty-five-odd appearances on the issue of education," recalled Knight-Ridder correspondent Saul Friedman. "They understood that to shift the fulcrum of the debate, you have to do it with repetition, which the President is very good at."

Repetition was necessary because, in a modern electronic society, the messages that actually pierce the static and register on people's consciousness are those which are repeated over and over again. According to Deaver, this was one requirement of his salesman's job that Reagan groused about. "It used to drive the President crazy, because repetition was so important," said Deaver. "He'd get on that airplane and look at that speech and say, 'Mike, I'm not going to give this same speech on education again, am I?' I said, 'Yeah, trust me, it's going to work.' And it I did."...

Chris Matthews, former press secretary to Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

"They know the presidency is ideally suited for the television age, because it is one person, there is all the People magazine aspect- what is he like, what is Nancy like? It is amazing how the monarchy translates so well into the television age and legislatures do not."

As Lyn Nofziger explained, there existed "kind of a mutual back-scratching" arrangement between television and the Reagan communications apparatus: "It's an unsaid thing. You need each other. Television needs Deaver to make sure they get something out of the White House today. Deaver needs television to make sure the President is presented in a good light."

Leslie Janka, who worked as a press officer who worked in both (Nixon and Reagan) administrations. "They've got to write their story every day. You give them their story, they'll go away. As long as you come in there every day, hand them a well-packaged, premasticated story in the format they want, they'll go away. The phrase is 'manipulation by inundation.' You give them the line of the day, you give them press briefings, you give them facts, access to people who will speak on the record.... And you do that long enough, they're going to stop bringing their own stories, and stopping investigative reporters of any kind, even modestly so."

Central to Deaver's success was his recognition of something journalists were loath to admit about their business: that news was, to the corporations that produced it, primarily a commodity

Sam Donaldson
"The press, myself included, traditionally sides with authority and the establishment."

Stan Opotowsky of ABC News, about the journalistic elite

They just don't come in contact with people not in their [income] bracket. They've lost touch with their community.

Robert Chandler, CBS News vice president

The fact that network journalists ranked in the top 2 percent of the nation's population by income, was not easily squared with the supposition that the media were an institution dominated by liberals.

Reporters could be as liberal as they wished and it would not change what news they were allowed to report or how they could report it. America's major news organizations were owned and controlled by some of the largest and richest corporations in the United States. These firms were in turn owned and managed by individuals whose politics were, in general, anything but liberal. Why would they employ journalists who consistently covered the news in ways they did not like?

To the class of super-rich and powerful businessmen who ultimately controlled the U.S. news media, Ronald Reagan was the most ideologically congenial President in living memory.

As Ben Bagdikian wrote: "Some intervention by owners is direct and blunt. But most of the screening is subtle, some not even occurring at a conscious level, as when subordinates learn by habit to conform to owners' ideas."

Saul Friedman of Knight-Ridder

"What is more the problem, and it's more subtle, is that editors and publishers around the country are in a milieu in which Reagan is liked. They go to the country club or the cocktail parties or the Rotary Club lunches; that's the way it works. If you want to be classical about it, newspapers in many of our cities are edited these days for the people who do vote, who do buy, who do advertise, who have profited a great deal from Ronald Reagan's presidency, for what I call the Bloomingdale's part of town and not necessarily the K Mart part of town."

Veteran Washington reporter James Deakin described in his book Straight Stuff the subtle process by which the limits on discussion got passed from the top of news organizations down the hierarchy to the reporters who actually went out and gathered and reported the news. The following passage refers to the Eisenhower era, but corresponds with what a number of journalists said privately about their own news organizations during the Reagan years:

"Most newspaper publishers were Republicans. Their editors were salaried employees.... The reporters knew this. They tried sporadically but they could not demonstrate a full-scale alternative to the official line. And they knew that if they somehow succeeded in doing this, they would find it virtually impossible to get it into print. So they did not try too hard. [Eisenhower press secretary James] Hagerty knew this, too. It was what you call an atmosphere, a climate."

As Bagdikian wryly noted:

"It is a rare corporation that appoints a leader considered unsympathetic to the desires of the corporation."

If the news media's rules of conduct and corporate identity I made it such a reliable articulator and enforcer of governing-class perspectives, why did the Reagan (or any other) administration have to worry about taming it in the first place?

Partly because news reporting was by nature a threat to authority. The founding purpose and tradition of journalism was to pursue and report the truth, to describe things as they were, even if that meant, as it usually did, challenging, angering, or otherwise offending powerful interests and individuals. As much as the press had been co-opted over the years and diverted from its original / adversarial course, there still beat in the journalistic heart, admittedly more faintly at some times than others, an instinctive resistance to consistently reporting what was not true.

The assault on the press was in fact but a part of a broader rightward shift within the American power elite during the 1970s. Although the corporate agenda would not be fully implemented until President Reagan took office, its political ascendancy was clear even during the Carter administration. By the end of his term, President Carter had acceded to most of big business's demands, often reversing his previous stands in the process. On taxes, for example, he had promised progressive reform but ended up signing a law that, among other regressive features, cut the top capital-gains rate by more than 40 percent. He beat a similar retreat from his initial policy of aggressive enforcement of federal regulatory laws. But it was not only Carter who bowed to the political strength of corporate forces; Congress was an equal and eager partner. Unsatisfied with the 5 percent real increase in military spending proposed by the Carter White House in 1980, for example, Congress added more funds on its own, eventually enacting a 1981 defense budget with 9 percent real growth built into it.

press historian James Boylan in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Starting with the seizure of the Teheran embassy late in 1979 and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan the press had both reported and joined what George Kennan called the greatest "militarization of thought and discourse" since World War II. Roger Morris wrote in 1980: "American opinion this winter bristled with a strident, frustrated chauvinism-and, from sea to shining sea, American journalism bristled with it." . . . [T]he press, led by television, played the patriot, obsessively focusing on crisis and suggesting that America, not individuals, had been held hostage. At the same time, the press thus cannily painted itself as being as loyalist as the jingo in the street.

William Greider said about the major news organizations:

They're powerful institutions. Their own sensibility is that they do share in the governing process; whether that's right or wrong, that's how they look at themselves; therefore, they have to be responsible within that governing elite.... They perceived over a period of years that the sensibilities and direction of the governing elite were shifting, and they'll not long be out of step with that."

Notwithstanding their public claims of a Reagan mandate, the core group of strategists who made things happen in the Reagan White House were keenly aware from the very start of how delicate, even fragile, their political situation really was. Reagan had been catapulted into office less on the virtues of his own candidacy than on the strength of mass disappointment with Jimmy Carter and a vague sense that, as most Reagan voters had told exit pollsters, it was simply "time for a change." His advisers furthermore recognized that Reagan's extreme views put him well to the right of the majority of the American people and that he therefore lacked the breadth of popular support necessary to sustain a successful presidency. These shortcomings could be finessed in the short term-the return of the Iranian hostages and the traditional honeymoon period with the press would give the White House some much-needed breathing room and maneuvering space but something would have to be done, and fairly quickly, if the President's right-wing agenda was to have any chance of becoming reality. The strategy settled on by Reagan's advisers was a virtual monument to the elevation of image over substance. Recognizing that their strongest card was Reagan himself, the White House apparatus concentrated on two basic tactics. First, Mr. Reagan's public appearances would be carefully staged and controlled to emphasize his attractive persona and winning personality to television viewers. Second, he would be promoted not on the basis of his philosophy or his program but rather as a decisive, can-do leader who promised to get the country moving again after a period of turmoil and doubt.

Haig and his aides began in early February to leak stories portraying Cuba and the Soviet Union as the source of revolution and turmoil in Central America. One of the first fruits of their labors was a February 6 New York Times article reporting that "the Soviet Union and Cuba agreed last year to deliver tons of weapons to Marxist-led guerrillas in E1 Salvador." The Times based its charge on "secret documents reportedly captured from the insurgents by Salvadoran security forces" and not only placed the story on the front page but made it the day's lead article. Such prominent placement in the nation's leading newspaper ensured that the story would be widely picked up in the rest of the U.S. press. This piggyback effect, combined with continued background briefings and public statements by Haig about "drawing the line" against so-called Soviet expansionism in E1 Salvador, quickly made Central America the hottest story of the day. Fortunately for Secretary Haig, most other news organizations displayed the same ferocious skepticism the Times did. At CBS, for example, former Richard Nixon personal aide-turned-television reporter Diane Sawyer told viewers on February 12 that "U.S. officials say the evidence is unmistakable that the Cubans are resupplying the guerrillas in El Salvador under the direct sponsorship of the Soviet Union."

The campaign of carefully orchestrated leaks culminated February 23 in the highly publicized release of a State Department White Paper entitled "Communist Interference in El Salvador." By that time, the idea that foreign Communists were behind the unrest in Central America had been circulating through the news media long enough to take on a virtual life of its own; the claim had been repeated so often that few thought anymore to ask for proof. Most reporters, for example, apparently did not bother to examine the nineteen documents released in support of the paper (all of which were in Spanish anyway) and opted instead to file reports based on the eight-page summary provided by the State Department. It was routine procedure, and it resulted in a fantastic public relations coup for the State Department as reporters ; in effect reduced themselves to human transmission belts, disseminating propaganda that would later be revealed to be false.

The State Department's propaganda campaign was spectacularly successful. It directed the gaze of the press onto the issue it wished and, equally important, it set the terms in which that issue would be discussed. True, the White Paper was eventually exposed as disinformation-reports by the Pacific News Service and, later, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post would reveal its key claims to be misleading distortions-but that was months in the future. And besides, those rebuttals would be given far less prominence in the media than the White Paper itself. Meanwhile, with very few exceptions, reports in the nation's major newspapers and on the three television networks trumpeted the new administration's claims about the dangers of Communist intervention in the United States' backyard.

Considering the situation on the ground in Central America and the actual U.S. role in the region, this parroting of Washington's self-serving claims by the American press was nothing short of shameful. If anyone, it was the United States, not Cuba or the Soviet Union, who was behind the hideous violence that racked El Salvador. Although Secretary Haig and the rest of the Reagan administration talked piously about defending democracy in El Salvador, the military junta which ruled that country was one of the most murderously repressive in the world. In March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who a month earlier had criticized the armed forces for human rights abuses and pleaded with President Carter not to send them more military aid, was assassinated while saying mass. In all, some 10,000 civilians were murdered in 1980, causing Archbishop Romero's successor to condemn the armed forces' "war of extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population." Not only was the United States supporting the El Salvador government as it slaughtered thousands of its own people; it was actively abetting that slaughter. By the time Reagan came to power in 1981, the United States had provided over $20 million in military aid to El Salvador and trained some 2,000 of its elite officers. Worse still, U.S. officials from the State Department, the CIA and other agencies had helped to establish and maintain the widely feared death-squad apparatus, whose hired hands had tortured and killed so many Salvadorans over the years...


[Sam] Donaldson ... protesting to me:" Most reporters thought the 1980 vote was to get Jimmy Carter out of there. I don't know of one who suggested in his copy that the vote was a mandate for Reagan's right-wing Republican economic program. Now Reagan shrewdly used the ten million [vote] margin to claim it was a mandate for his program, and the Congress went along with it, but it certainly wasn't led by a pack of reporters."

It was true, of course, that reporters did not lead the Reagan mandate chorus by unilaterally inserting statements to that effect in their copy. That, after all, would be editorializing. Rather, in an example of how the press often functioned as a clear windowpane for the White House apparatus, reporters simply gave Reagan officials a platform for making such statements themselves and then did not bother to question or otherwise balance them. In fact, on three separate occasions Donaldson did this himself. On May 4, after showing viewers footage of Vice President Bush attacking Democrats for trying "to thwart the mandate of the people," the ABC White House correspondent concluded his report not by challenging the mandate notion but by noting that it, and not the merits of the program, was now "the administration's main sales pitch." A similar claim by White House spokesman Larry Speakes was allowed to pass unchecked on June 3, as was another by President Reagan himself on June 16. (Donaldson was hardly unique in this regard. His counterparts at CBS, for example, filed similar reports on the May 4 and June 3 statements.)

Awed by Reagan's mastery of television and fearful of his ability to sway public opinion, the Democrats also seemed more than willing to accept the mandate thesis. Quickly abandoning any pretense of being an opposition party, dozens of them fell into line behind the President while scores more simply refrained from voicing any strong or sustained criticism of his program. Thus on May 8 the House of Representatives gave Reagan his first big victory on economic policy, approving by a 60-vote margin a White House budget that slashed social spending while gorging the Pentagon.

"This was a program [Reagan's 1981 proposed budget cuts and tax cut] that by its nature militated against poor people and for rich people," explained Peter Milius, an editor who helped run the national news desk at The Washington Post in 1981. "If someone came down from Mars, it'd be the first thing you'd tell him about it. You were cutting taxes and social welfare spending. Taxes tend to be paid disproportionately by rich people and social welfare spending goes disproportionately to poor people."


And compared with their coverage of the rest of the Reagan economic program, the press was actually relatively outspoken on the budget cuts. With the Democrats marching side by side with, and occasionally even ahead of, Reagan on the tax and military spending issues, the media (1) were even quieter about what an incredible windfall the 1981 tax cuts were for big corporations and the rich and (2) missed reporting altogether an astonishing Pentagon raid on the U.S. Treasury that eventually won the Defense Department untold hundreds of billions of dollars.

Despite the fantastic amount of money involved, the Pentagon raid was not exposed until David Stockman published his memoirs in 1986, and even then the news media failed to pick up on the story. According to Stockman, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his deputy (and future Reagan national security adviser and Defense Secretary) Frank Carlucci worked a bookkeeping trick on the young budget director shortly after Reagan's inauguration. At a January 30, 1981, meeting, the three men agreed to a compromise seven percent "real" increase in military spending. (As a candidate in 1980, Reagan had urged between five and nine percent growth.) The trick came when Carlucci suggested that the seven percent growth begin with the 1982 budget-which happened to be $80 billion bigger than the 1980 Carter budget Mr. Reagan had criticized. Carlucci's sleight of hand, in other words, won the military an extra $80 billion per year in spending authority above and beyond what even conservative hard-liners had said was needed to restore U.S. military prowess. Beginning with the 1982 budget, the Pentagon would receive, year in and year out, $80 billion of pure gravy. No wonder, to quote Stockman, "they were squealing with delight throughout the military-industrial complex."

Why didn't reporters catch Weinberger and Carlucci? No classified documents were required, only the application of probing skepticism toward official pronouncements and a willingness to study the actual budget numbers. But that was not the modus operandi of the typical Washington reporter. Sources were his stock-in-trade, and until they rang a warning bell, additional investigation was unlikely.

"There's a symbiotic relationship in this town between government officials and outside critics and news stories, and until something is recognized within those circles as a problem, the one or two stories that may get done on an issue tend to run inside the paper," explained Washington Post military affairs reporter Fred Hiatt. (Hiatt did not cover the Pentagon in 1981, but he did help uncover the spare parts overpricing scandal, featuring $600 coffeepots and toilet seats, that so embarrassed the Pentagon in 1983-84. Important as such overpricing was, the burden it imposed on taxpayers was dwarfed by that of the $80 billion annual cushion that Weinberger and Carlucci inserted into the Pentagon budget under David Stockman's nose.) "Look, overspending isn't what people were worried about at the time," he said. "People in the administration and who voted the budgets in Congress were worried about our military being in a depressed state and needing to be upgraded after years of neglect."

A similar if less extreme pattern was evident in network news coverage of the enormous tax cuts of 1981. Tax cuts were the centerpiece of President Reagan's economic program. Not only were they far larger in dollar terms than the budget cuts (over five years the 1981 tax cuts would result in federal revenue losses of some $750 billion); they were the magic wand that, it was promised, would revive the stagnant U.S. economy.

Later, Stockman would confess that supply-side was merely old-fashioned "trickle-down" economics under a new name, and that Kemp-Roth, the legislative embodiment of supply-side, had merely been a Trojan horse intended mainly to cut taxes for the top bracket, the wealthy. As those comments hinted, the supply-side theory was in fact little more than the intellectual justification for a policy of transferring huge amounts of money to the already wealthy.

That was not, however, how Reagan's tax cuts were portrayed in network news coverage at the time. Neither the need for nor the likely effect of the tax cuts was exposed to serious critical scrutiny. Rather, to the limited extent that news stories examined the key theory behind Reaganomics at all, a sort of agnostically optimistic view prevailed. For example, CBS News correspondent Bruce Morton concluded a February 6 story on the supply-side theory by quoting supporters to the effect that perhaps it would not work, but then neither had anything else, so it should at least be given a try. That sentiment was echoed on the night of Reagan's April 28 speech when both ABC and NBC featured Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker's comment that Reagan's plan was "a gamble," but one that must be tried "because nothing else has worked."

Although network news stories regularly voiced concern that the tax cuts might enlarge the budget deficit, they rarely even hinted at how lopsidedly they would favor rich over poor. The White House apparatus deserved some of the credit for that Reagan was outfitted with populist rhetoric with which to sell the tax program, including the wonderfully misleading phrase "across the board" to describe the cuts themselves. That phrase may have made the cuts sound fair, but however they sounded, 10 percent across-the-board cuts of course had radically different effects depending on one's income. For a $20,000-a-year auto repairman, for example, it amounted to a $200 subsidy, while for a $2 million tycoon it was $200,000. (When one calculated in the income effects of the Reagan budget cuts and previously mandated increases in Social Security taxes, a citizen had to make some $75,000 a year to rank among those who came out ahead from the 1981 tax and budget changes.)

Although the math was simple enough, the equity angle was virtually ignored on the evening news except for a handful of stories in June, when Tip O'Neill blasted Reagan's plan a couple of times as a "windfall to the rich." And the extent of the corporate tax cuts got even less attention, perhaps because the Democrats and the White House alike favored them. indeed, the two parties got into a bidding war in June over who could propose the most ( lavish package of benefits for corporate America. The results were astonishing. The effective corporate tax rate dropped from 33 to 16 percent, loopholes proliferated and depreciation-schedules were made so generous that scores of big companies ended up paying no income tax, or receiving rebates, in at least one of the four years from 1981 to 1984. It was an episode budget director Stockman would later recall as a time when "the hogs were really feeding. The greed level, the level of opportunism, just got out | of control."

As journalists who covered it later emphasized, the invasion of Grenada cannot be understood without recalling what was happening in Lebanon at the same time. Correspondent John McWethy, for example, in conceding that he had been "clearly snookered" by the Pentagon source who waved him off the invasion story, nonetheless noted that he had been completely exhausted by the time the two men spoke. Just the day before, Sunday, a suicide bombing had destroyed a housing compound for U.S. marines in Beirut. As the death toll quickly soared over two hundred, with bodies still being recovered from the wreckage, the Beirut bombing began to take shape as one of the biggest stories of 1983. Like most Washington-based foreign affairs reporters, McWethy had been covering the story virtually nonstop since Sunday morning, and was understandably distracted when ordered to check out the Grenada angle on Monday evening.

The Beirut bombing had all the makings of a major political, disaster for President Reagan, and on the eve of the 1984 presidential campaign no less. Deaths of U.S. servicemen in overseas combat were always politically dangerous for sitting Presidents, but Reagan had more reason to worry than most. In September the White House apparatus had busily promoted his non-military response to the KAL 007 incident as evidence that he wasn't trigger-happy, but Richard Wirthlin's polls privately showed that many Americans still feared that Reagan might lead the country into war. Now, hundreds of young Americans had been slaughtered in their sleep, and for what purpose?

Later there were those who suspected that the Reagan administration launched its invasion of Grenada precisely in order to divert public attention from the tragedy of Beirut. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise; the go-ahead from Washington to invade Grenada was given at least three days before the surprise bombing took place in Beirut. Moreover, U.S. representatives had secured from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States their formal invitation to intervene militarily in Grenada on Saturday, October 22, the day before the Beirut bombing. Nevertheless, from Reagan's standpoint, the timing of the Grenada invasion could hardly have been more fortuitous. The invasion yielded precisely the kind of public relations dividends that skeptics charged the administration had been seeking. The news media immediately made the invasion the nation's top story while relegating Lebanon to secondary status. And the invasion itself not only encouraged people to forget about the Beirut tragedy; it provided a release for the emotions of anger and grief it had triggered, emotions that might otherwise have been vented on Reagan.

The propaganda windfall was such that some Washington reporters later speculated privately that it had been Michael Deaver who dreamed up the Grenada operation after observing how the 1982 Falklands-Malvinas war had boosted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's sagging popularity. One Reagan press aide later confirmed in an interview for this book that "there were a lot of discussions by some White House people about what the British had done in the Falklands." Deaver himself denied having engineered the invasion of Grenada, but volunteered that he had wholeheartedly supported it, partly because, in his words, "it was obvious to me it had a very good chance of being successful and would be a good story." Asked whether he did not fear that attacking such a weak and tiny country would in fact expose the President to ridicule, Deaver replied, "No, because I think this country was so hungry for a victory, I don't care what the size of it was, we were going to beat the shit out of it. You know"-he chuckled-"two little natives someplace, if we'd have staked the American flag down and said, 'It's ours, by God,' it would have been a success."

But to ensure that the public applauded the invasion, Deaver believed the government had to control to the maximum extent what Americans were told and especially what they were shown about it. (This lesson of Vietnam and the Falklands would later be applied to great effect by the South African government as well; its 1987 press ban led to substantially less TV coverage abroad, thus reducing foreign protest against apartheid.) The reason the public supported the Grenada action, explained Deaver in retrospect, was that "they didn't have to watch American guys getting shot and killed. They can't stand that every night. They'll accept strafing a Libyan ship or going down and having a forty-eight-hour action in Grenada, but they couldn't stand day after day of armless children in Lebanon. We could stand all that when [World War II newspaperman] Ernie Pyle was writing it and once a week you go down and see the newsreels, but that's a lot different than nightly on your television set. I firmly believe this country, because of television, will be prevented from ever fighting a ground war again."

ABC's John McWethy disagreed that television made future ground wars impossible, but conceded that the press had "a profound impact on the way they are able and not able to fight wars. We stopped the Israelis short of demolishing Beirut [in 1982] with our pictures. The tanks drew up and stood there for a while, and day after day we broadcast pictures of what they were doing to what was a civilized city, and the world went nuts."

The Reagan administration nulled that problem by first barring the press from Grenada and then releasing its own sanitized videotapes of the operation (which each of the three major networks broadcast). "Their pictures weren't Iying, but because they weren't all the pictures, they ended up being distorting," commented McWethy. "Because there was not a single piece of combat footage, it was not an accurate reflection of what was going on down there. The administration's argument is, if you had one frame of that stuff, that's the only thing you'd show. Well, that's probably true. The lead picture in our broadcast would not be students getting off the airplane and kissing the ground, it would have been a soldier with his guts blown away. And that would have turned public opinion around in a big hurry."

And public opinion, as much as anything else, was what Grenada was all about. The invasion of Grenada came to be remembered in the United States as a reaffirmation of American power and resolve after the humiliations of Vietnam and Iran. Less often remembered were the handsome political dividends it paid to President Reagan a year before he faced re-election. Reagan's overall popularity rating jumped sharply after the invasion, and public sentiment on his handling of foreign policy flip-flopped, moving from 50 to 42 percent disapproval in September to 55 to 38 percent approval in November. Part of the shift is attributable to the Beirut disaster and Americans' tendency to rally behind any President in a moment of crisis. But there is no denying the role Grenada played in rekindling among the American people the spirit of old-fashioned nationalism which the Reagan campaign would so skillfully encourage and exploit during the 1984 presidential contest. Within eight weeks of the invasion, the President was assuring the nation in his State of the Union address: "Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall."

The rest of the world, it must be added, was considerably less impressed by Grenada. Allies and adversaries alike condemned the United States and, behind its back, smirked when it crowed about overpowering such a postage stamp of a nation. Self-absorbed isolationists by temperament and tradition, most Americans never realized that it was only in the United States (and its eastern Caribbean client states) that the invasion of Grenada was applauded as a wonderful thing, but no matter. The primary target of the operation was not in Grenada or Nicaragua, or even in Cuba or the Soviet Union, for that matter; it was among the electorate of the United States.

The U.S. news media's reporting of the Grenada invasion was a veritable triumph of faith over reason. In retrospect, it is remarkable how credulous leading American journalists, were of information given them by a government which had both lied to them about whether an invasion was planned and then censored them by preventing them from covering it. But it was a trust built into the way most journalists approached the task of reporting on their government.

"Most of the inaccurate stuff came out of the press conferences [held in Washington by Defense Secretary Weinberger and various military officials. But we took it hook, line and sinker," conceded ABC's John McWethy. "When you are in a situation where your primary source of information is the United States government-and for three days basically your only source of information, except Radio Havana-you are totally at their mercy. And you have to make an assumption that the U.S. government is telling the truth."

Asked why he gave Reagan's claims about Grenada such credence after the administration had first misled him about the impending invasion and later refused to allow him or other reporters the chance to independently verify those claims, McWethy asked rhetorically, "Do you report nothing? What you do is say, 'Administration officials say.' You report that Weinberger says the fighting was heaviest here, or Weinberger says the barracks are under siege. Well, shit, he's the fucking Secretary of Defense. What are you going to do? You report what he says."

McWethy was one of the most knowledgeable reporters on the foreign and military policy beat in Washington. His conservative politics and heavy reliance on U.S. military and diplomatic officials as news sources earned him the derisive nickname of "General McWethy" among some ABC colleagues ...

... Reagan was praised as a peerless leader who had rekindled the fires of greatness in America's soul.

The source of Reagan's extraordinary appeal was actually simple enough. He told Americans what they wanted to hear, and he did so with enough conviction so that many, including members of the press, found it easy, and reassuring, to believe him. Not for him Jimmy Carter's mistake of admitting that the United States' quarter-century postwar reign as the world's pre-eminent empire had come to an end, that new accommodations had to be reached and new limits respected. Reagan, in effect, stood Carter's so-called malaise speech on its head. The United States was not in decline. It could still be the greatest power on earth, "the shining city on a hill," if only it summoned the necessary will and asserted itself.

"Truth is the enemy of anyone presiding over a nation in decline," Patrick Caddell, the instigator of Carter's malaise speech, later observed. "Anyone who acknowledges the truth [as Carter did] is out, because it is an acknowledgment of failure. The only other option is denial. And that can only be carried off by offering a counter-reality that is further and further removed from the actual reality facing the country."

Reagan's counter-reality during the first term consisted mainly of the 1981 dogfight with Libya and the 1983 invasion of Grenada-proof, as he later told the nation, that the United States was once again "standing tall." Grotesquely exaggerating the threat posed by external demons in order to whip the home population into a belligerent, nationalistic frenzy was an old trick, but it worked. And with Congress and the news media serving as active accomplices, Reagan and his public relations apparatus continued to foster national self-delusion and call it patriotism during the second term as well.

The President's public relations wizards had long promoted Reagan as the flesh-and-blood personification of Uncle Sam, with precious little dissent from the press. But nowhere was the media's complicity more in evidence than during the July 4,1986, "Liberty Weekend." The three major television networks, and especially ABC (which paid $10 million for exclusive rights to the entire four-day extravaganza), treated viewers to an orgy of sycophantish saturation coverage. Even reporters once critical of the President joined the cheering. CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, for example, gushed: "Like his leading lady, the Statue of Liberty, the President, after six years in office, has himself become a symbol of pride in America; he has devoted himself to reviving the spirit of patriotism across the country." And Stahl's paean was restrained compared to Time's homage in a cover story titled "Yankee Doodle Magic": "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."

By the time these fine words reached Time's readers, the secret arms shipments to Iran that would ultimately prove Reagan's undoing had been underway for some eleven months. But in an environment of such political self-congratulation and cultural xenophobia, which the press itself had done much to foster, was ~ it any wonder that news organizations failed to notice and expose the Reagan administration's secret Iran initiative?

Comparing Iran-contra with Watergate, Ben Bradlee later identified one essential difference in press coverage of the two scandals: "Unlike Watergate, all newspapers were on to this story very quickly." It was true, sort of. News organizations did get onto the Iran-contra story quickly-but only after it was dropped in their laps, courtesy of the small Lebanese weekly Al Shiraa and the Reagan administration itself.

Like Watergate, Iran-contra spelled the end of a presidency. But this time around, one could hardly credit or blame the press, which had witlessly stared mounting evidence in the face for months without blowing the whistle on the shady U.S. dealings with Iran and the contras...

As Robert Parry, who had been on the Oliver North trail for months, recalled: "The real effect of The New York Times and The Washington Post is not only that they can sanctify something, but if they're not covering it on anything like a regular basis, if they've decided it's not news, it's very hard to convince your editors at AP and even at Newsweek that it is news. Because they don't see it in the morning papers that they read. So they think, is this a guy who is off on his own tangent, following something that really isn't a story that's going to get us in trouble?"

... until the Reagan administration itself certified that wrongdoing had taken place, the press was essentially deaf, dumb and blind to its abundantly obvious existence. Which recalls yet another of the lessons of White House-press relations during Ronald Reagan's first term: for the American press, truth was not truth and fact not fact until the government said so.

The Reagan years seem destined to be regarded as one of the most fantastic eras in American history, a time when the national political debate was dominated by a bundle of ideas that almost without exception were contradicted by objective facts, common sense or both. In economic policy, there was the President's confident assertion that the government could slash taxes and escalate military spending without bloating the deficit, and that it could cut social spending without ravaging the poor. In foreign policy, there was the notion that Nicaragua, a country of some three million impoverished peasants, posed a sufficiently grave threat to U.S. national security to justify the waging of an illegal war that made a mockery of America's claim to global moral leadership. Similarly shallow-brained views prevailed across the entire spectrum of public policy, from civil rights and the environment to nuclear weapons, drugs and terrorism.

The American news media remained remarkably blasé in the face of the seemingly endless stream of irrational or otherwise baseless claims flowing from Washington. Upon Reagan's ascension to power in 1981, the press quickly settled into a posture of accommodating passivity from which it never completely arose. Relieved by the departure of Jimmy Carter, gulled by false claims of a right-wing popular mandate, impressed by Reagan's recovery after being shot and seduced by his sunny personality and his propaganda apparatus's talent for providing prepackaged stories boasting attractive visuals, the Washington press corps favored the newly elected President with coverage that even his own advisers considered extremely positive. Few in the press remarked on how biased Reagan's 1981 tax and budget cuts were in favor of the rich over the poor, for example. And not a soul noticed that, thanks to a bookkeeping trick eventually disclosed by David Stockman, the Pentagon managed to increase its budget by some $80 billion per year above what even Reagan and his peace-through-strength 1980 campaign advisers had advocated

Criticism did begin to be heard as the economy shuddered to a halt late in 1981 amid growing evidence that Reagan was, as journalists so gently phrased it, "disengaged" from the realities of governance, and things were touch and go for much of 1982. The bad economic news kept coming, and the press sometimes blamed the President. But once the first feeble signs of recovery appeared in the spring of 1983, the danger passed. So-called Reagan gaffe stories mysteriously disappeared. News reports began speculating that Mr. Reagan would be a hard man to beat come next year's elections.

The August 1983 Korean airliner tragedy was exploited to heighten the anti-Communist hysteria that had already done so much to preclude criticism of Reagan's foreign and military policies. Conquering Grenada ratcheted the mood of self-congratulatory nationalism up yet another notch while distracting attention from the 241 marines killed in the Beirut bombing days earlier. Despite the censorship imposed by the administration, the press played the Caribbean invasion as the President's "finest hour" and held no lasting grudge. As James Baker later recalled "We had a difference of opinion with the press with respect to Grenada, of course, but it didn't carry over into generally negative reporting. "

It certainly did not. When the economy kept expanding in 1984, the press saw little reason to resist Michael Deaver's attempt to portray Reagan's re-election as inevitable; campaign coverage obligingly conveyed the White House version of reality. While Walter Mondale was ridiculed as a wimp beholden to special interests, Ronald Reagan was saluted as a great patriot who made Americans proud of their country again. Thus did news organizations in the world's greatest democracy fulfill their self-proclaimed ideal of objective journalism in the fateful year of 1984.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," Mr. Reagan crowed as he began his second term. And it was true-not just of him but of the press whose exaltations of the President as a leader of unique gifts and moral standing now reached a fever pitch. Reagan's April 1985 visit to a West German cemetery containing the graves of Nazi SS members, which occasioned the one spasm of hard-edged coverage he encountered in the second term prior to Iran-contra, provoked no tempering of this judgment. Nor did his cheerful disregard for the millions of hungry and homeless people haunting the nation's streets. Nor did the steadily growing list of top administration officials accused of illegal or unethical conduct. Even as he championed the values of individualism and material gain that gave rise to these developments, Ronald Reagan was treated as somehow separate and apart from them.

And then came the Iran-contra affair. David Gergen, who believed the early Reagan years had witnessed a return to the traditional deference that the press had exhibited toward the government in the days before Watergate and Vietnam, expressed the fear early in the scandal that Iran-contra marked the end of deference. At the time, it seemed a plausible conjecture. But as the scandal played itself out over the ensuing months, it became increasingly clear that this climactic episode in the relationship between the Reagan White House and the American press constituted less a departure from the patterns of the past six years than a reaffirmation of them.

After all, it took wrongdoing on the scale of Watergate wrongdoing judged as such by some 90 percent of the American people and, crucially, by Reagan's own right-wing allies in Washington-along with the Democrats' regaining control of both houses of Congress, before the nation's major news organizations subjected Reagan to the kind of sustained and aggressive coverage that should be the norm in a properly functioning democratic system of checks and balances. And even then, the press delivered a less than stellar performance. It was astonishingly late coming to the Iran-contra story, easily diverted from the fundamental issues and all too willing to give up the chase.

Still, it would be foolish to blame the press alone for the extraordinary political successes of the Reagan administration, or to hold it solely accountable for the shameful deterioration in the honesty and vitality of the nation's political life that took place during the Reagan years. Surely the President himself should also be held responsible for what happened, as should Michael Deaver, James Baker, David Gergen, Richard Darman, Larry Speakes, Richard Wirthlin and all the others who labored so intensively in his service. Together they sold the official myths of Reagan's presidency to the American public by developing a sophisticated new model for manipulating the press. Many of the techniques they applied-such as the virtual elimination of regular press conferences and the stage-managed emotional appeals designed to distract attention from Reagan's actual policies-bespoke a fear of open government and accountable democracy not to mention contempt for people's intelligence. Others, such as packaging and promoting the President as if he were a new brand of automobile, debased the nation's political process in subtler though no less dangerous ways.

Faced with the challenge of implementing policies which, as Gergen conceded after the fact, were directly at odds with mass sentiment, Reagan's men made the presentation of issues, rather than their substance, the pre-eminent consideration. This strategy meshed perfectly with the sort of television-dominated, bottom-line-oriented journalism increasingly being practiced by the major national news organizations in the 1980s. And these organizations responded in kind with gentle, jelly-bean journalism that elevated surface over substance and obfuscated the real issues at stake; it was a perfect symbiosis.

The animating mentality of the Reagan propaganda apparatus was revealed in all its witless malevolence by Michael Deaver's cheerful confession that he didn't know or care whether SDI would actually work; speaking of the weapons system that might someday end life on the planet, he said he supported it because ~t was "a great concept." Yet the Reagan model and the value system it embodies now threaten to become a permanent feature of American politics. For that alone, the men of the Reagan apparatus deserve censure of the highest order.

But they never could have achieved so much had the rest of official Washington not acquiesced, in word and deed, to so much of their agenda. Cowed by exaggerated impressions of Reagan's popularity, Congress, and the Democrats in particular, repeatedly shrank back from challenging Reagan's basic assumptions and directions. Indeed, throughout the Reagan era, the Democrats were a pathetic excuse for an opposition party-timid, divided, utterly lacking in passion, principle and vision, a paler version of Reaganism but without the Reagan.

Nor can the American people escape all responsibility for what was done in their name during the Reagan years. True, they were frequently deprived of plain-spoken explanations of what was going on around them. But what I. F. Stone once said about the bureaucracy in Washington applies equally well to the U.S. news media: it puts out so much information every day that it can't help but let the truth slip from time to time. To anyone paying the minimum amount of attention required of a concerned citizen, the basic thrust of Reagan's policies was clear. And there were plenty of opportunities for resisting them. For all the power wielded by preservers of the status quo, citizens of the United States had more freedom to challenge government policy than did citizens anywhere else in the world.

To be sure, they were hardly encouraged in this direction by the press (or by most mainstream political leaders, for that matter). Indeed, the political effect of most news coverage was to fill people's heads with officially sanctioned truth and thus to encourage among them a sense of isolation, confusion and apathy bordering on despair. This was to be expected; after all, the press took its definition of what constituted political news from the political governing class in Washington. Thus while the press shaped mass opinion, it reflected elite opinion; indeed, it effectively functioned as a mechanism by which the latter was transformed, albeit imperfectly, into the former.

It is tempting to dismiss the Reagan years as aberrational, a time when a feverish madness temporarily overtook the country, causing otherwise sensible people in the press and elsewhere to forsake reason, lose the courage of their convictions and drift into smug self-delusion. Alas, all this did happen. But this explanation mistakes symptoms for causes. Most of the salient characteristics of the relationship between the press and the White House predated the Reagan years; the excesses of those years simply made their existence, and their consequences, much more apparent.

The fundamental problem was that the press was part of, and beholden to, the structure of power and privilege in the United States. That did not mean it never challenged a President. The corporate counteroffensive of the 1970s, for example, was eventually reflected in press coverage sharply critical of President Carter. And even Ronald Reagan, a rich man's President if there ever was one, was attacked in the aftermath of the October 1987 stock-market crash. (In a display of breathtaking hypocrisy after the Wall Street debacle, Time ridiculed the President it had so vigorously applauded throughout his first term as "befuddled," "dodder[ing]" and "embarrassingly irrelevant," and went on to declare that he had "stayed a term too long.") But for the most part, Reagan was spared from genuinely adversarial coverage. As a member of Washington palace court society and a creature of the establishment, the press simply was constitutionally disinclined to offer fundamental criticisms of a presidency that above all else articulated and advanced the interests of corporate America. Journalists allowed loyalty to their executive superiors and official sources to take precedence over their obligations to the public and the country.

One need only consider the 1988 presidential campaign to see what lessons the press, and the politicians, have drawn from the Reagan experience. Both George Bush and Michael Dukakis have run campaigns modeled on the 1984 Reagan effort: control one's message by staging photo-opportunity events that boast all the spontaneity of May Day parades in Moscow; keep reporters at a distance; and avoid being drawn into meaningful give-and-take about one's record or future plans. Meanwhile, the nation's journalists are once again gripped by horse-race mania. Once again, citizens are told far more about where the candidates stand in the polls than where they stand on the issues. Once again, ratings prevail over responsibility, news is treated as a commodity to be sold rather than an educational trust to be fulfilled and fundamental questions about the nation's direction are neglected in favor of the six-second sound bite.

When Abe Rosenthal said that for a paper like The New York Times there are no excuses, there are only values, he could just as easily have been speaking of any of the major newspapers, television networks, magazines and other large news organizations that in their seamless totality exercise such enormous influence over the national political discussion in late-twentieth century America. The news media have become the single most influential actor on the stage of American politics. Their power is only increasing, and there exist precious few checks and balances upon them.

The press's failure during the Reagan years suggests that the time has come for a fresh debate on its role within American society. For no matter who is elected President in 1988, the quality of press coverage and therefore of the nation's political debate and its democratic process promises only to get worse unless the men and women of the press return to first principles and live up to the concept of a free and independent press first upheld some two hundred years ago by the American Revolution. Perhaps this is too much to expect from employees of the profit-obsessed corporations that now own America's news organizations. But, in a land that once produced the likes of Adams, Paine and Jefferson, that is a bitter thought indeed.

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