Reagan on the News

The perception of 'Teflon Ron' stemmed from the media's beneficial treatment of Reagan outlined previously in this paper. Now it makes sense to look at how the Reagan administration/campaign used the media to convey its message to the American public. The Reagan campaign's use of the news media during his campaign cannot be clearly separated from that of his first term. It's impossible to clearly delineate where the first term ended and where the first term began. An old joke holds that the reelection bid begins right after the inauguration. Thus, it makes sense to look at the administration's approach to the media.

The Reagan administration was brilliant in its ability to manipulate the news media. This success stemmed in large part from the key players' analysis of the American public. Rather than focusing upon rational, dry issues, they recognized how to appeal to the people. According to Mark Herstgaard (1989), Michael Deaver believed that the administration's focus should be upon the image they convey, rather than the news story itself. For example, Deaver relates the following anecdote:

        In the 1984 campaign the Defense Department and the Air Force 
        continually wanted us to do a rollout on the B-1 bomber.  And of course 
        one of the negatives on Reagan was that he was more likely to get us 
        into a war, so I was always shying away from military kind of events.  
        But jobs were just as important during the campaign in California 
        [which Reagan ultimately won] and the B-1 accounted for something like 
        40,000 jobs in southern California, so I agreed to do a stop at the 
        Rockwell plant in Palmdale.  But I said, across the B-1 I want the 
        biggest sign you can make saying 'Prepared for Peace.'  So you never        
        really saw the B-1.  All you saw was the President with this big sign 
        behind him (Herstgaard 1989: 25-26).
There is a clear correlation between the approach taken in this 'news story' and the previously discussed "Ronald Reagan: Prepared for Peace" commercial.

The Reagan commercial used emotional events in order to abstract real historical events. Nowhere in the visual or spoken text of the commercial was reference made to either war or peace. Instead, the commercial created a strong sense of identification between the viewer and Reagan's America. Then at the end, once the strong visual message has been disseminated, is the title card "Ronald Reagan: Prepared for Peace" flashed.

The mainstream media dutifully reported Reagan as "preparing for peace," when in reality he was doing anything except prepare for peace. As president, Reagan presided over the largest peacetime military expansion in world history. Weapons are designed for one purpose; thus, it's hard to rationalize how Reagan was "prepared for peace." However Reagan's handlers were brilliant in their media analysis. They knew that facts are secondary to what's reported: if it is told on television, it's true.

The following image is from a Reagan campaign stop in Texas on July 27, 1984.

This picture clearly illustrates how the Reagan administration created photo opportunities that would contribute to Reagan's image. Reagan is delivering a speech, but the backdrop reads "leadership." Thus, when this image appears in newspapers and on television, the American public will immediately be drawn to the image of Reagan underneath the word "leadership" and will associate the two concepts.

Although Reagan's administration could create strong visual messages, they could not directly control how the news media reported their stories. However, what they could control, and which is almost as important, is what the media covered. By creating strong presentations, they could assure that the press would cover what it was presented with. According to veteran ABC newsman Sam Donaldson: "They are very good at directing the news by making available something on a story that they want out and withholding from sight - remember television - something they aren't prepared to discuss" (Herstgaard 1989: 27).

The Reagan administration was also quite adept at keeping Reagan away from reporters, in order to avoid the potential embarrassment of his frequent factual errors. David Gergen admits that he "was deeply worried about the gaffe problem" (Herstgaard 1989: 139). Following a press conference on January 19, 1982, "correspondents for all three networks spent nearly as much time correcting the President's statements as they did reporting them; Reagan's false assertion that unemployment had begun climbing before he took office received special notice" (Herstgaard 1989: 138-139). In spite of examples like this one, the press did not make a significant issue out of Reagan's failings (Herstgaard 1989).

Although Reagan frequently provided the press with photo opportunities - like the example of the appearance at a military base outlined earlier - he rarely held press conferences where issues could be discussed, because the media would report upon Reagan's inaccuracies. Thus, the administration's focus was clearly upon image and not substance. In fact, one of the most famous images of the 1980s is of a reporter having to yell questions to President Reagan as he was boarding a helicopter, because all other access had been so restricted. Reagan pretended that he couldn't hear the questions and got on the helicopter (Herstgaard 1989).

During this period of time, the mainstream news media was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of corporate owners. This was problematic for many reasons. First off, there is an inherent bias in being owned by a for profit company. The old adage that one doesn't want to bite the hand that feeds him or her holds true in this situation. During what was arguably one of the most important stories ever exposed by the American media - the Watergate scandal - it was two reporters working on their own, with significant inside help, who broke the story. Both Woodward and Bernstein were "virtually alone in their dogged pursuit of the Watergate scandal, which occurred in the midst of a presidential election yet had absolutely no impact on the election outcome" (Stauber and Rampton 1995: 180). However, when Walter Cronkite wanted to air an in depth two part special dealing with Watergate on the eve of the election, a phone call from the White House to CBS chair William Paley convinced him to scale back Cronkite's planned report (Stauber and Rampton 1995). This was done, not out of kindness to the president, but because CBS was dependent upon being friendly with the White House in order to receive news.

Because the mainstream media is run by corporations whose sole purpose is the maximization of profit, the quality of the media is negatively impacted. In television, money comes from advertising, not the quality of the programming. Advertisers pay based upon the amount of viewers a station has. In order to attract viewers, stations compete amongst each other. Issues and hard news do not attract people; instead, the stations rely upon spectacular visual events. According to Sam Donaldson, both Michael Deaver and David Gergen, understood "a simple truism about television: the eye always predominates over the ear when there is a fundamental clash between the two" (Herstgaard 1989: 25). And of course, the eye is not being drawn to visual representations of the issues; it is being attracted by pretty pictures of Ronald Reagan standing in front of large signs that declare he is prepared for peace. Television news has altered itself significantly in order to maximize profit:

        News media, especially television, have resorted to the marketing 
        techniques employed by commercial advertisers to "sell" their news 
        "product."  Popular news anchors are identified through focus group 
        analysis.  They are dressed to make them appear warm and trustworthy, 
        instructed to engage in friendly disarming banter with other new 
        anchors, and sold to the public as news personalities 
        (Croteau and Hoynes 1994: 19).
It's interesting to note the similarities between how both television news and the US presidency had changed to image over substance.

Another problem of maximizing costs, is that the staff is kept at a size where the news can still be put on the air at a sufficient quality to attract viewers. As a result of this, high demands are placed upon reporters and crew. These demands do not deal with the quality of the news they cover, but more the quantity. It is because of this squeeze that strategies like the Reagan administration's - present the media with prepackaged stories, frame the issue for them, and then allow them to "cover" it - are able to be so successful. It is this tactic on the part of the administration that strongly contributed to Reagan's overwhelming victory in 1984.

Go to Reagan's Message

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Created by Andrew Van Alstyne