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MediaWatch: February 1989

Vol. Three No. 2

Study: Skewing Ronald Reagan's Legacy

As the baton passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush, TV news reporters were passing judgment on the Reagan years. A MediaWatch Study reveals these network assessments reflected the liberal view of Reagan's legacy. Echoing liberals, network reporters conceded Reagan's popularity, praised his communications skills and applauded his relations with the Soviets. They also blamed Reagan, not congressional spending, for the budget deficit, and they held Reagan, not the Democratic-controlled city governments, responsible for urban problems such as homelessness.

At the same time, they ignored or tried to discredit those aspects of the Reagan legacy most celebrated by conservatives: the rebuilding of the American economy (especially ending the inflationary spiral), the reform of the federal courts through conservative appointments, the implementation of the Reagan doctrine and buildup of the military.

MediaWatch analyzed all seven ABC, CBS and NBC stories reviewing Reagan's years in office. These included one on ABC's World News Tonight, two aired by the CBS Evening News, and one on NBC Nightly News and Sam Donaldson's recap of the Reagan years, aired by ABC as an introduction to David Brinkley's December 22 interview with the President as well as retrospectives on CBS' Sunday Morning and NBC's Sunday Today.

The improved economy was counted as an achievement for Reagan six times, but he got blamed for its supposed shortcomings on 16 occasions, almost three times more often. In addition, the administration received blamed for the deficit another 11 times. Reporters gave short shrift to aspects of the Reagan years conservatives admire. A stronger defense was portrayed neutrally on three occasions, just once as an admirable achievement. Only two reports bothered to include mention of the dramatic change in the makeup of the federal bench.

ABC: Sam Donaldson portrayed the improved economy as more of an accident than anything planned. He impugned Reagan for neglecting the homeless and for policies toward blacks that "seemed particularly onerous, particularly when it came to his conservative appointments to the Supreme Court." In foreign affairs Donaldson noted the Grenada invasion, but he credited changes in Soviet behavior to "something" that "happened: a new Soviet leader named Gorbachev," not the U.S. military build-up.

The night after Reagan's January 11 farewell address Richard Threlkeld gave the President credit for one policy achievement, "peace abroad." As for the economic recovery Threlkeld undercut the accomplishment, telling viewers "things are not nearly as prosperous as the President makes them sound," charging that "on average, more new jobs were created every year under Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan."

CBS: Terence Smith spent 13 minutes on the January 8 Sunday Morning analyzing impact. Two of his three sources were Washington Post columnist Haynes Johnson, who told viewers Reagan has "mortgaged the country's future," and "historian" Bill Leuchtenberg, who announced that "even the situation with respect to unemployment...the situation there has been improved...because of the large increase in dead-end jobs." Smith did not identify either as liberals. Smith traveled to a state unemployment office where "the reviews were uniformly harsh" and charged that "the number of Americans living beneath the poverty line reached new heights during the Reagan era," though conceding "poor families benefitted from sharply reduced inflation." Smith also interviewed Pat Buchanan, clearly identifying him as a "conservative supporter," but didn't let Buchanan counter any of the earlier economic doom and gloom. In fact, Johnson and Leuchtenberg got a full three minutes of air time in ten appearances, while Buchanan, in four appearances, got just over a minute to defend Reagan.

NBC: On January 20, the day Reagan left office, John Chancellor signaled it "is clearly time for a change." To Chancellor, during eight years of Reagan, "the country's competitors got richer and the United States got poorer."

On Sunday Today January 16 Garrick Utley praised Reagan how he "changed his thinking about the Soviet Union, and our world is a safer place for it." Turning to domestic affairs, Utley charged "when Ronald Reagan came to Washington, he in effect told the nation that it could take a vacation from troubling problems, that it was all right not to worry about the poor, about race, the homeless, or debt."