The Times Vs. Ronald Reagan

The flag-draped coffin of former President Ronald Reagan is seen inside a hearse en route to a mortuary as it departs from Mr. Reagan's house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles June 5, 2004. AP

This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Matthew Continetti.


Here is how the June 6 Washington Post covered the death of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States and arguably the most significant American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

  • One banner headline, in bold type, "Ronald Reagan Dies," followed by the subhead, "40th President Reshaped American politics."

  • Four front-page stories, including articles on Reagan's life ("Actor, Governor, President, Icon"), death (the aforementioned "40th President Reshaped American politics"), and legacies foreign ("Hastening an End to the Cold War") and domestic ("Sagging GOP Rebuilt in His Image").

  • An eight-page pull-out section, titled "Ronald Wilson Reagan: 1911-2004: A Life, A Legacy" and featuring in-depth reporting on everything from Reagan's rise to plans for the president's state funeral to dissections of the spontaneous crowds and memorials that formed outside the Bel Air, California, funeral home where Reagan's body is being prepared for burial.

  • Four additional articles in the Post's Style section under the group headline "The Leading Man."

  • An appreciation from columnist George F. Will, and a separate, unsigned editorial on Reagan's legacy.

    And here is how the June 6 New York Times, the nation's paper of record, a publication that prides itself on its "flood the zone" coverage of important news events, covered the president's death:

  • One three-column headline, "Ronald Reagan dies at 93; Fostered Cold-War might and Curbs on Government," followed by a 10,820-word obituary penned by chief obituary writer Marilyn Berger.

    That's it.

    You can give The Times credit for an additional story in the Sunday late editions, clocking in at an additional 975 words, on various reactions to the news.

    But still. Consider: The picture of Reagan adorning The Times front-page is, to my eye at least, exactly the size of the front-page picture of Smarty Jones, the racehorse that lost the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. A story on Smarty Jones shares the top fold of The Times front-page with Reagan, incidentally, as do stories on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the competition over who will be Senator John Kerry's running mate. (In the Post, Reagan gets the top fold all to himself.)

    What's going on here? American media organizations have been preparing for Reagan's death for years. At 93 Reagan was the oldest president ever. Time and Newsweek, which close their publications on Saturday, were both able to put together Reagan cover packages (The Weekly Standard closed before Reagan's death on Saturday). Surely The Times had its coverage of Reagan's legacy in the works for some time.

    And you get the sense, upon reading Berger's obituary, that it was, for the most part, written some time ago, held in reserve until the inevitable day arrived. It begins innocently enough, the obituary does, providing the "news" element to the story — where, when, and how Reagan died — and including President Bush's reaction to the sad news.

    Then comes the tenth paragraph, before the jump to the attractive four-page spread on Reagan. And here the Times gets into the meat and potatoes of the Reagan presidency:

    Late in 1986, halfway through his second term, Mr. Reagan and his administration were plunged into turmoil by an effort to deal too rashly with the same kind of hostage crisis that he had accused President Jimmy Carter of handling to gingerly.

    Contrary to official policy, Mr. Reagan's subordinates sold arms to Iran as ransom for hostages in Lebanon and diverted profits from the sales to the rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinistas then governing Nicaragua. A joint Congressional investigating committee reported that the affair had been "characterized by pervasive dishonesty and secrecy" and that Mr. Reagan bore ultimate responsibility for the wrongdoing of a "cabal of zealots."


    There's more:

    The deception and disdain for the law invited comparisons to Watergate, undermined Mr. Reagan's credibility and severely weakened his powers of persuasion with Congress. Scrutiny of his appointees increased; Supreme Court nominees were rejected or withdrawn; and more of his aides were accused of ethics violations than in any other administration up until that point.

    The Times deems Iran-contra, in other words, the most significant, the most newsworthy, the most important event of Reagan's presidency. Which is arguable, one supposes. But what about the unprecedented concessions in arms reductions that Reagan won from the Soviet Union? Those are mentioned, albeit briefly, in the fourteenth paragraph, after Iran-contra is treated in exquisite detail, and taken up again in this paragraph, the fifteenth:

    It was Mr. Reagan's good fortune that during his time in office the Soviet Union was undergoing profound change, eventually to collapse, setting off a spirited debate over Mr. Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. [Emphasis added.]

    Of course The Times never misses an opportunity to criticize the current president. So here is Berger on Ronald Reagan's widow:

    Nancy Reagan, meanwhile, spurred by her husband's suffering, became an increasingly strong advocate for embryonic stem cell research, putting her at odds with her fellow Republicans in the White House. Many scientists believe that such research could lead to treatments for Alzheimer's and other diseases. But President Bush has limited federal spending on it, because the research involves the destruction of human embryos.

    Last month, in making a plea for more research, Mrs. Reagan said: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. Because of this, I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."

    The Times does have some laudatory things to say about Reagan, however. He "managed to escape blame for political disasters for which any other president would have been excoriated." For example, "If the federal deficit almost tripled in his presidency, if 241 marines he sent to Beirut were killed in a terrorist bombing, if he seemed to equate Nazi storm troopers with the victims of the Holocaust, he was always able to rekindle public support." Hence Reagan "became known early on as the Teflon president."

    But more often than not The Times gives free reign to experts like James Tobin, "a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Yale University," who says Reagan's principal legacy was "a crippled federal government." Or Thomas Cronin, "the McHugh Professor of American Institutions at Colorado College," who says, "[Reagan] was too late, too little, and too lame when it came to human rights abuses at home and abroad...He was not willing to be a leader." Or Jack Greenberg, "a former lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund," who says Reagan "showed a clear hostility to civil rights aspirations."

    A lot like the clear hostility The Times showed, and shows still, to Ronald Reagan.

    Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

    By Matthew Continetti
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