Media's Reagan tune has changed

Glowing coverage of ex-president's death in sharp contrast with earlier treatment

by David Kopel

June 19, 2004

Despite the hagiographic coverage of Ronald Reagan during the last two weeks, things were not so sunny when Reagan was president. Nor was the media coverage so positive. Contrast the stories that ran in the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Postabout Reagan last week with the stories that ran during the same week 22 years ago.

When Reagan spoke to the United Nations on June 17, 1982, relations with the United Nations had sunk to an all-time low. The Newsaccurately reported, "U.N. is unenthusiastic" about Reagan's speech.

In contrast, the U.N. delegates had given standing ovations to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's speech two days before (Associated Press, June 18, 1982).

Reagan had just returned from a 10-day trip to Western Europe. An AP article in the Newssummarized, "Reagan reassured allies despite distractions" (June 11, 1982).

The next day, a Scripps Howard article by Ted Knap declared "Reagan's European trip a rousing success." Regarding Reagan's speech to the British Parliament, Knap wrote, "In the most provocative passage of that most memorable speech, Reagan said, 'The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.' "

Reagan was right, and so was Knap. In 2004, the Reagan speech was replayed again and again as proof of Reagan's prophetic brilliance.

The Post,however, relied on Los Angeles Timeswriter George Skelton (June 13, 1982) to announce that "Fatigue, feuds, foul-ups cut European trip's gains." The speech to the British Parliament got less than a half-sentence of attention in the Post article.

There have been a few exceptionally insightful people, such as New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Newscolumnist Michael Tracey, who agreed with Reagan that the Soviet Union could collapse. But the conventional wisdom of the media was embodied by New York Timeseconomics writer Leonard Silk, who visited the USSR for a month, and then declared that, although the Soviet economy had problems, there was "no evidence that the economy was in danger of collapsing, as some in the West have said, or that the United States could make it collapse . . ." (Post,June 19, 1983).

The first Saturday after Reagan's return featured coast-to- coast rallies against his defense policy.

The largest was in New York's Central Park, where 700,000 people (according to the News,June 13, 1982) demonstrated against the Reagan military buildup, in the largest political rally in American history. The rally featured performances by Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.

Postcoverage included a "news" article (although it was really an editorial) by Anna Quindlen of The New York Timesfawning over the "faith" and "optimism" of the protesters as "democracy in action."

The Newsheadline said that the demonstrators were marching "for peace," although history showed that they were really marching against the U.S. military, and it was the Reagan policies, not theirs, that brought peace.

TheNewseditorial page (June 12, 1982) provided readers with two articles on the same side of the disarmament issue, and none on the other side. Arthur M. Cox claimed that Reagan "does not yet grasp the extraordinary peril" of the arms race. Eugene Carroll argued against the claim of Reagan and his allies that a "nuclear freeze" could not be mutually verifiable.

Later in June, Reagan was scheduled to go to Geneva for arms reduction talks with Soviet tyrant Leonid Brezhnev. A Mike Keefe cartoon in the Post(June 20, 1982) pre-emptively declared that Reagan had ruined the talks by calling the dictator a "slimy trash-breath low-life scuzzball." Keefe was, of course, using hyperbole, but only nine days after Reagan was inaugurated, he had stated that the Soviets "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat." Reagan's forceful words were derided by many journalists.

Underneath Keefe's cartoon was syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft, who explained that Reagan's European tour had created only "a temporary stop" in "the coming apart of the Atlantic alliance."

The front page of the June 14, 1982, NewsEntertainment section, meanwhile, featured Robert Denerstein's glowing review of the new film documentary The Atomic Cafe.The movie bemoaned the execution of American traitors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (who had helped Stalin steal the atomic secret), and mocked President Eisenhower for his Reagan-sounding statement that "America is the greatest force God has ever allowed to exist at his foot stool."

The headline sneered at America's "A-bomb hysteria" and Denerstein proclaimed that "we live in a society capable of sublime idiocy." True enough, although history shows that the hysterics and sublime idiots were Reagan's critics who demanded immediate disarmament and who opposed Reagan's policy of eliminating the root cause of the Cold War by destroying Soviet Communism.

Interestingly, Denerstein's photo shows him smoking a cigar - unexceptional at the time, but now the target of another form of hysterical idiocy.


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