MediaWatch: October 1990

Vol. Four No. 10

Remembering the Reagan Revulsion


Journalists pride themselves on providing history's first draft on a daily basis. As the accomplishments and disappointments of Ronald Reagan's presidency fade into the past and head for the yellowing pages of the history books, will reporters provide a balanced account of accomplishments and disappointments, or will they just replay the anti-Reagan soundtrack of the 1980s?

To answer this question, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to locate every mention of certain terms describing the Reagan years between October 1, 1989 and September 30, 1990. The terms: "Reagan years," "Reagan era," "Reagan decade," "Reagan legacy," "Reagan record," "Reagan Revolution," and "Reaganomics." The sample included major newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post) and news magazines (Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report).

Out of 989 mentions of the Reagan terms, negative assessments outnumbered positive ones by 555 (56 percent) to 79 (8 percent), a margin of almost 7 to 1. The other 355 mentions either left a mixed impression or stated simple facts like "Lawrence Korb was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan years."

In 120 magazine mentions, 53 percent made negative judgments, compared to just 6 percent with positive evaluations. In 524 mentions in newspaper news stories, reporters presented the Reagan years in a negative light 263 times (50 percent), compared to 43 (8 percent) which associated the Reagan years with positive things. The critique was even harsher in 345 mentions in newspaper editorials and book, film and television reviews: negative mentions outnumbered positive ones by eight to one, 226 to 29. Often, positive accounts managed only faint praise. A March 21 New York Times editorial celebrating independence for Namibia called it "a rare triumph of American diplomacy in Africa during the Reagan years."

News reporters routinely let their bias against Reagan color their coverage. For exampe, New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum told readers on February 18: "Many others in Washington and around the country maintain that the United States now has a golden opportunity to meet problems that were overlooked in the tightfisted Reagan years." Newsweek Senior Writer Charles Leerhsen suggested February 5: "The support-group movement may be the only advance in the area of social services that was possible in the era of Reaganomics." Leerhsen's colleague, Senior Writer Eloise Salholz, told readers April 9 that "Reagan-era cutbacks and recession pushed many Hispanics deep into poverty."

After Bush's State of the Union address, the February 6 Los Angeles Times ran an AP dispatch that didn't include a Democratic response -- it was the Democratic response: "His message did not dwell on what many see as the biggest failures of the Reagan years -- the record federal budget deficits and the huge trade imbalances that transformed America from the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor country."

Using their presumed adversarial role, reporters often passed on liberal arguments without question. On the day of the Housing Now! march last October 7, Washington Post correspondent H. Jane Lehman reported: "The 80 percent cutback in federal housing production programs during the Reagan years are often cited as the driving force behind the lack of housing that is affordable to low-income families."

The media enjoy having it both ways: after Reagan is savaged for spending cuts, he's saddled with all the blame for overspending. A November 5 New York Times Magazine piece on speechwriter Peggy Noonan explained: "When she joined the Reagan team in 1984, Reaganomics was producing federal budget deficits of over $200 billion a year and saddling future generations with a mountain of debt."

The gulf between reviewers and the public was even wider than the gulf between reporters and the public. Reviewing Benjamin Friedman's Day of Reckoning last October 29, New York Times reporter Peter Passell decided: "Mr. Friedman, who worked as an investment banker before he became a professor of economics at Harvard University, does offer a devastating analysis of the likely consequences of Reaganomics: permanently diminished living standards and declining world influence."

On May 13, Los Angeles Times book reviewer Charles Solomon delighted in the plot of Richard Condon's latest work of fiction: "Charley initially is appalled at the notion, but Ronald Reagan's legacy of corruption and malfeasance quickly makes the former hit man feel right at home in Washington."

Looking at a lurid TV-movie on Jim and Tammy Bakker April 5, Los Angeles Times television writer Diane Haithman pointed out that "The director, writer, and actors agree the Bakkers' rise and fall represents the fate of many caught in the web of greed and materialism that characterized the Ronald Reagan era."

Film critics were the most creative. Time's Richard Corliss let go in his Christmas cover story on Tom Cruise: "From its plot synopsis, Risky Business (1983) promised more of the lame same. An affluent high school senior has an affair with a hooker (Rebecca de Mornay), dunks the family Porche in Lake Michigan, turns his house into a brothel and still gets into Princeton. Sounds like the Reagan era in miniature."

Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley went ballistic in her December 31 review of 1980s cinema: "If sensitive guys were the superegos, then action guys were the ids, rediscovering jingoism and homoerotic savagery in tune with Reaganomic red-baiting and their audiences' adolescent fear of females." Vincent Canby of The New York Times was not to be outdone, writing on June 3: "Though Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies didn't have a single coherent political thought in their respective heads (or maybe for that very reason), they became emblematic of the Reagan era."

Americans expect reporters to be at least as tough with Reagan as with any former President. But the slant of the stories has been so lopsided, and the criticism relayed with such relish, that it goes beyond "toughness." No one should be surprised that the Reagan legacy is being treated with as much hostility in retrospect as it was treated in its own time, and no one should be surprised when that treatment is used as proof positive of the media's left-wing bias.