Did the Press Apply the Teflon to Reagan’s Presidency? : Coverage: Critics say media failed to report fully and accurately what the government was doing. However, the public ‘longed for a tall-in-the-saddle America.’


When Mark Hertsgaard wrote his 1988 book on media coverage of the Reagan presidency, he titled it “On Bended Knee.”

Hertsgaard’s thesis, stated on the first page, is clear: Media coverage of the Reagan Administration had been “extraordinarily positive.” The press, he wrote “abdicated its responsibility” to report fully and accurately to the American people what their government was really doing. Prominent journalists and news organizations, he said, “ allowed themselves to be used” by the President’s political operatives.

Hertsgaard even quoted Benjamin C. Bradlee, then executive editor of the Washington Post--scourge of the Richard M. Nixon Administration--as saying that the media “totally subconsciously” had been “kinder” to President Reagan than to any other President in his 25 years at the Post.

Many critics of the media agree with this evaluation.

Reagan was often called the “Teflon President” because criticisms of him and his policies seldom stuck, seldom diminished his enormous personal popularity. But Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, says Reagan’s Teflon was “sprayed on by the press.”


“The press was struggling to overcome its own parricidal guilt over Vietnam and Watergate,” Gitlin says. The media concluded that the “temper of the country had shifted radically as a result of the 1980 election and they didn’t want to be out of step.”

Not only were journalists reluctant to challenge Reagan, for fear of alienating readers and viewers, but they, too, “longed for a tall-in-the-saddle America,” Gitlin says. “They hated Carter. They thought America had been humiliated. . . . They were themselves more impressed with Reagan as the sort of voice of the people than the public was.”

Most journalists vigorously dispute this. They point out, quite rightly, that they published and broadcast many stories critical of Reagan, especially early in his Administration.

“There has not been a President in modern times, I think, whose intelligence was more thoroughly ridiculed and whose factual information was more routinely questioned” than Reagan’s, says Howell Raines, Washington editor of the New York Times.

So why didn’t those stories have any real impact on the public’s general attitude toward Reagan?

One explanation is that he surrounded himself with a sophisticated corps of media and marketing advisers who knew exactly how to package their product--The President--and they were unprecedentedly successful at manipulating the media and enabling Reagan to go over the heads of the media, directly to the American people.


Another explanation is that the American people didn’t elect Reagan for his intellect or to be a hands-on, detail-conscious chief executive. They elected him because they saw him as an inspiring leader, someone who would establish broad, basic policies and philosophies to reverse trends they didn’t like at home and restore American prestige abroad. Voters knew exactly what they were getting with Reagan.

“I would argue that when we told them that Reagan wasn’t very smart, we weren’t bringing them news,” Raines says.

But there’s another, more basic explanation for the Teflon phenomenon.

Reagan made people feel better about themselves and their country and he presided over a significant decrease in inflation and interest rates, two problems that had bedeviled his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, he repeatedly asked voters to base their vote on whether they were doing better than they had been doing four years earlier; their collective answer gave him a landslide victory at the polls.

President Reagan was “so personally popular with the American public” that negative stories about him “never registered on the public consciousness,” says Leonard Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post.

Although this is a widespread perception, public opinion polls taken during Reagan’s presidency show that his ratings--on both personal approval and job approval--were actually much lower than for Presidents Carter, Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower at several comparable points in their terms. But the political and journalistic climate had changed drastically by the time Reagan came to power, and that combined with his popularity to coat him in Teflon.

After Vietnam, Watergate and various other scandals, the public had become increasingly disenchanted with the news media; forced to choose between aggressive journalists and an avuncular President, they generally sided with the President. When reporters took Reagan on directly--as when he was challenged on various verbal gaffes or when Sam Donaldson of ABC News shouted questions at him while he was boarding helicopters--many in the public accused them of being disrespectful and unfair.


At the same time, ego-burnishing television appearances and big-money lecture dates and book contracts had enabled some Washington journalists to greatly close the gap in celebrity and economic status between themselves and the major players they covered.

Robert Parry, a former reporter for Newsweek and the Associated Press, believes that the media, especially in Washington, has “lost that sense of being the outsiders, who are criticizing or examining.”

Parry, author of “Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth and Manufacture the Conventional Wisdom,” argues that many Washington journalists have “sacrificed our larger, more important role as watchdog to become inside players”; fear of losing access to the major political players has made them less critical of those players.

With a popular President such as Reagan, he says, they wanted to be seen as part of the team, as patriotic--not out of touch with the mainstream after all the conflict and controversy over their role in the collapse of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies.

Jennie Buckner, vice president for news at Knight-Ridder newspapers, says she increasingly worries about “the tendency of the Washington press corps to be so closely aligned with the Establishment” in this way.

“We have to work harder to remember that we’re there in the reader’s interest,” she says.

Most in the media deny aligning themselves with the Establishment, but they acknowledge that the public has become increasingly critical of their skeptical, aggressive approach toward politicians. As a result, says Michael Kinsley, a syndicated columnist, after some early negative stories on President Reagan, many in the media just “got tired and gave up.”


When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted, the media pursued it but--with a few exceptions--not as aggressively as one might have expected, and that story, too, had less impact than many had expected.

Bill Moyers, on nationwide television, called Iran-Contra “nothing less than the systematic disregard for democracy itself . . . in effect, a coup,” but Kinsley says most reporters “shrugged their shoulders and said: ‘Well, he has this kind of magic; there’s no point.’ ”

Parry and Brian Barger, a fellow AP reporter at the time, tracked down the roots of the Iran-Contra story early. In 1985, more than a year before the scandal erupted, they began writing about Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s secret paramilitary intelligence network in Latin America. But they encountered some resistance from their AP editors and, discouraged, both left AP in mid-1986. Most other major news organizations--the Miami Herald was a significant exception--had essentially abandoned the story a year earlier.

It wasn’t until the small Beirut magazine al-Shiraa broke the story of the arms-for-hostages deal in November, 1986, that the issue exploded into national headlines. Even then--even after official investigations of the scandal were under way--senior members of the U.S. Senate committee charged with the investigation decided that they shared the nation’s unease about ousting yet another President.

In light of then-pending (and historic) negotiations with the Soviet Union, they agreed that an impeachment proceeding against President Reagan would be “dangerous for the nation,” as Seymour Hersh later wrote in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

“Specific evidence of a presidential ‘act of commission’ would be necessary before Reagan himself would become a target,” Hersh wrote.


No such evidence has been found, and Reagan remained a hero to most Americans during most of his two terms in the Oval Office.