Media at a Crossroads: 25 Years After Reagan’s Triumph

Random Lengths News | October 21, 2005
By a twist of political fate, the Oct. 28 deadline for special

counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to take action on the Plamegate matter is

exactly 25 years after the only debate of the presidential race between

Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter. How the major media outlets

choose to handle the current explosive scandal in the months ahead will

have enormous impacts on the trajectory of American politics.

A quarter of a century ago, conservative Republicans captured the

White House. Today, a more extreme incarnation of the GOP’s right wing has

a firm grip on the executive branch. None of it would have been possible

without a largely deferential press corps.

Among other things, Reagan’s victory over Carter was a media triumph

of style in the service of far-right agendas. When their only debate

occurred on Oct. 28, 1980, a week before the election, Carter looked rigid

and defensive while Reagan seemed at ease, making impact with zingers like

“There you go again.” More than ever, one-liners dazzled the press corps.

For the next eight years, a “Teflon presidency” had the news media

making excuses for the nation’s chief executive, who often got his facts

wrong while substituting folksy exclamations for documented assertions.

The Democratic Party’s majorities on Capitol Hill rarely challenged

Reagan, and the Washington press corps used the passivity of the Democrats

to justify its own. As Walter Karp wrote in Harper’s magazine a few months

after Reagan left office, “the private story behind every major non-story

during the Reagan administration was the Democrats’ tacit alliance with


That tacit alliance included going easy on Reagan and his

vice-president-turned-successor, George H.W. Bush -- despite the

Iran-Contra scandal that exposed their roles in the illegal funneling of

aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, a CIA-backed army that intentionally killed

civilians in Nicaragua while trying to implement Washington’s goal of

overthrowing the Sandinista government.

“For eight years,” Karp wrote in mid-1989, “the Democratic opposition

had shielded from the public a feckless, lawless president with an

appalling appetite for private power. That was the story of the Reagan

years, and Washington journalists evidently knew it. Yet they never turned

the collusive politics of the Democratic Party into news.”

Today, words like “feckless” and “lawless” seem like understatements

when applied to the current president. A pattern of mendacity, callousness

and appalling priorities has brought deadly consequences from Baghdad to

New Orleans. The administration appears to be nearly drowning in scandals.

Yet the news media -- again with notable assists from Democratic leaders

in Congress -- are doing much to keep the Bush regime afloat.

Predictably, the Oct. 15 referendum on a constitution in Iraq

provided the Bush administration with a new opportunity to roll out a

retooled line of propaganda vehicles. A manipulative process, massaged

under the duress of occupation, yielded a “yes” vote among Iraqis who

chose to participate. Seen through a narrow lens -- keeping the carnage

and intimidation out of the frame -- the election was a victory for

democracy. Seen more broadly, it was a travesty.

Like two decades ago, the absence of tough Democratic leadership on

Capitol Hill -- combined with an overly respectful press -- enables the

White House to retain extensive political leverage. While the day of

reckoning in human terms is every day in Iraq, the political day of

reckoning on Iraq policy has yet to come in Washington. And at the rate

things are going, many more years will pass before the need for withdrawal

of all U.S. troops from Iraq becomes incontrovertible in American media

and politics.

Part of the Reagan legacy is the Washington press corps’ refusal to

ask tough questions with even tougher follow-ups. Although the polls say

that President Bush and his Iraq policies are very unpopular, Democrats in

Congress and reporters are still hanging back. Their polemical statements

and probing stories are the political and journalistic equivalents of

slapping the wrist rather than going for the jugular.

Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered wild beast. And if the day

comes that its political survival appears to be at stake, the Bush

administration will counterattack with extreme ferocity. Judging from the

past, there are solid reasons to doubt that the press corps -- and leaders

of the overly loyal opposition -- are inclined to pursue key issues of

White House deception to the point that the administration will be truly

backed into a corner. As usual, the tasks of demanding truth and affecting

the course of history for the better will fall to independent journalists

and grassroots activists.


Norman Solomon is the author of the new book “War Made Easy: How

Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” For information, go to:

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