Fade-out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2004


Ronald Reagan’s death brought out the best and the worst of the American news media.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

In the harsh slanting light of the setting sun, Nancy Reagan bent to her husband's casket. She caressed it, as if it were fine porcelain, then lay her head upon it. Stoic all through a difficult week, she finally yielded to her emotions and quivered with grief. Daughter Patti moved in on her left to support her, as did son Ron at her right. A little awkwardly, stepson Michael did the same immediately behind her. Together they formed a triangular composition reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. Anguish was written on the face of all four.

The scene was so raw and heartbreaking that under normal circumstances it would have constituted an invasion of privacy. But, of course, every moment of that extraordinary week had been carefully orchestrated by President Reagan's family precisely for the cameras. And the cameras obliged, as constant as those California hills the Gipper loved so well.

One could argue that Reagan Week showed the American media at their best and worst. By the time you're reading this, Reagan's funeral will have passed like that Friday sunset, superseded by Bill Clinton's memoirs, the handover of Iraq and the presidential campaign. But I think the event is worth lingering over for what it says about the state of our industry, and not a little about the state of our country.

It shouldn't have been surprising to see such an outpouring of respect, affection and grief. Ronald Reagan was a hero to millions, and even those who detested his politics had to concede he was a principled politician and likeable man. Beyond that, America post-9/11 was desperate to celebrate a time when the future held more promise than dread.

But the initial burst of news coverage would have you believe that Reagan was a cross between Abe Lincoln and Mother Teresa, with an overlay of Mister Rogers. Television, as has become typical in the big stories, was the worst offender, turning Reagan's life and death into visual wallpaper. But the torrent of worshipful, uncritical newspaper coverage — open page after open page — was scarcely better.

So we got several unbroken days of Morning in America and Tear Down This Wall, with nary a mention of Iran-Contra, Grenada, recessionary tax cuts, AIDS or polluting trees. It was as if the press of 2004 had forgotten the press of 1984. Finally a few observers, such as Washington Post media maven Howard Kurtz, could take it no more. "Reagan was, quite simply, a far more controversial figure in his time than the largely gushing obits on television would suggest," he reminded us.

What happened as the week wore on, though, was more troubling yet. On the radio talk shows and cable fests and op-eds, an ugly fight broke out among the pundit class over who had the right to mourn at all. Those who weren't remembering Reagan in the politically approved way — who credited him for his gracious demeanor, say, or sense of humor — were derided as patronizing. And those who actually had the audacity to point out that as president, Reagan alienated millions of people at home and abroad, were blasted as unpatriotic.

The episode made it painfully clear how media partisans of every stripe have been enablers in the current plague of public gridlock and incivility.

So maybe that's what the Reagan outpouring was mostly about — a nation disgusted with the status quo, where honest debate is no longer possible and nary a kind word can be offered for an opponent lest you look weak. Just in the decade since Reagan slid into his Alzheimer's disease, consider the ugliness we have endured — the Clinton scandals and impeachment; a toss-up presidential election; toxic congressional politics; a divisive war in Iraq.

I think many of those thousands of people who waited hours to pay their respects didn't so much agree with Ronald Reagan's views as they were thanking someone who rose above the pettiness of it all, who was the last of the gentlemen politicians before his successors made that concept an oxymoron.

And in the end the media did what they do best during extraordinary events, which is to shut up and watch with us. We were transfixed by the Reagan funeral and pageantry, so laden with symbolism and reminding us of the possibilities of America. And we were transfixed too by Nancy Reagan. If the events were scripted, her grief was as real as her love for her husband. I'm one of those who always considered Mrs. Reagan a cold fish, but it was impossible to watch her during that week and not admire her courage or feel for her desperate loss.

As I watched that final tableau at the casket, with the week's excess suddenly giving way to poignancy, I was glad the camera didn't turn away.

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