FLASHBACK: The Liberal Media’s Long Record of Reviling Ronald Reagan

June 2nd, 2024 10:21 AM

This Wednesday (June 5) marks 20 years since the passing of Ronald Reagan, the conservative Republican President whose policies led to record economic prosperity and laid the foundation for the peaceful end to the Cold War. In the years since his death, some in the media have used Reagan’s memory as a weapon to bash today’s Republican Party.

In 2015, for example, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell juxtaposed the Gipper with his would-be successors: “Reagan’s message was infused with sunny optimism, the flip side of today’s angry rhetoric.... Reagan saw America as a shining sit on the hill. A country welcoming people in, not shutting them out.”

But that’s not how Mitchell (NBC’s White House reporter in the 1980s) and her colleagues characterized Reagan when he was implementing his successful conservative program. As NewsBusters Executive Editor Tim Graham documented 20 years ago, the liberal media harshly, and wrongly, portrayed Reagan during his life “as an unintelligent airhead who lived in a fantasy world, a mesmerizing Music Man fooling the public with a phony bill of goods, a man who was cruel or uncaring to poor people, and a puppet for the greedy rich.”

The MRC’s archives are stuffed with quotes revealing how the media routinely derided both Reagan and his policies. Given how history has since unfolded, these quotes show how their anti-conservative bias proved a poor guide for journalists seeking to write a “first draft of history.” Here’s just a sample:

■ “The Reagan Administration has made a bad situation worse... by challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet regime, calling the USSR an ‘evil empire’ doomed to fail.”
Time’s Strobe Talbott on U.S.-Soviet relations, May 21, 1984 issue.

■ “If F.D.R. explored the upper limits of what government could do for the individual, Reagan is testing the lower limits. Reagan’s opinions and policies would be enough in another time to have protesters marching in the streets, or worse. And yet something about Reagan soothes and unites — even though the effects of his programs may repel.”
— Essayist Lance Morrow in the July 7, 1986 Time magazine cover story, “Why Is This Man So Popular?”

■ “I think [Reagan] is going to have to pass two or three tests. The first is, will he get there, stand in front of the podium, and not drool?”
— ABC White House reporter Sam Donaldson on a planned Reagan press conference, NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, March 18, 1987.

■ “I predict historians are going to be totally baffled by how American people fell in love with this man and followed him the way we did.”
— CBS’s Lesley Stahl on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas, January 11, 1989.

■ “After eight years of what many saw as the Reagan Administration’s benign neglect of the poor and studied indifference to civil rights, a lot of those who lived through this week in Overtown seemed to think the best thing about George Bush is that he is not Ronald Reagan....There is an Overtown in every big city in America. Pockets of misery made even meaner and more desperate the past eight years.”
— ABC’s Richard Threlkeld reporting from a section of Miami where there had been riots, on World News Tonight, January 20, 1989.

■ “Largely as a result of the policies and priorities of the Reagan Administration, more people are becoming poor and staying poor in this country than at any time since World War II.”
— Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s Today, July 17, 1989.

■ “As this decade comes to a close, the United States has the highest rate of poverty in the industrial world, 32 million poor people and no one knows exactly how many of them are hungry and homeless. So that ‘shining city on a hill’ of which President Reagan spoke in his farewell address remains to these Americans a mirage and will remain so until we come to see them — men, women and children — as people like us.”
— Bill Moyers after PBS’s re-airing of 1982 CBS Reports “People like Us,” June 20, 1989.

■ “Analysts will also recognize that Ronald Reagan presided over a meltdown of the federal government during the last eight years. Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale abuse....Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan’s laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, the dangerous state of the air traffic control system — not to mention the staggering deficit.”
— CBS reporter Terence Smith in a New York Times op-ed piece, November 5, 1989.

■ “It will take 100 years to get the government back into place after Reagan. He hurt people: the disabled, women, nursing mothers, the homeless.”
— White House reporter Sarah McClendon in USA Today, February 16, 1990.

■ “Some say Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by spending so much on defense that the Kremlin went bankrupt trying to keep up. That won’t wash. During Reagan’s presidency the United States itself became a bankrupt country.”
— Commentator (and former anchor) John Chancellor on the November 20, 1990 NBC Nightly News.

■ “We went through a trance with a mesmerizing leader and enjoyed the moment. You remember it was good morning again, morning again in America, and the sun was always coming up. No dark clouds, live for the moment, don’t worry about the debts, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about paying them off, don’t worry about the long-term future. And I think that’s the legacy....I don’t think I said the most lawless. I think the record is the worst since the Harding years and that’s probably saying about the same thing.”
— Former Washington Post editor Haynes Johnson discussing his Reagan-bashing book Sleepwalking Through History, March 12, 1991 Today.

■ “By many measures, the Reagan Administration was a failure. It left us with a huge debt and an unfocused domestic policy. It got us in a moral mess with Irangate and a military disaster in Lebanon.”
— NBC News President Michael Gartner reviewing Lou Cannon’s book, President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime in The Washington Post, April 21, 1991.

■ “The amazing thing is most people seem content to believe that almost everybody had a good time in the ’80s, a real shot at the dream. But the fact is, they didn’t. Did we wear blinders? Did we think the ’80s just left behind the homeless? The fact is that almost nine in ten Americans actually saw their lifestyle decline.”
— NBC reporter Keith Morrison, February 7, 1992 Nightly News.

■ “We keep looking for some good to come out of this. Maybe it might help in putting race relations on the front burner, after they’ve been subjugated for so long as a result of the Reagan years.”
— NBC’s Bryant Gumbel talking about deadly riots in Los Angeles, April 30, 1992 Today.

■ “[Bush] is about to make matters worse by hauling out Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention. Reagan has become a symbol of what went wrong in the ’80s. It’s like bringing the Music Man back to River City, a big mistake.”
— Newsweek reporter Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group, August 1, 1992.

■ “The subtext of the recovery-and-healing line is that America is a self-abusive binger that must go through recovery. Thus: the nation borrowed and spent recklessly in the 1980s, drank too deeply of Reagan fantasies about ‘Morning in America’ and supply-side economics. And now, on the morning after, the U.S. wakes up at the moment of truth and looks in the mirror. Hence: America needs the ‘courage to change’ in a national atmosphere of recovery, repentance and confession.”
Time Senior Writer Lance Morrow welcoming the Clinton presidency, January 4, 1993.

■ “Reagan got his taxation program through, which was to cut taxes to the bone....What Reagan did was destroy the economy!”
— ABC’s Sam Donaldson on This Week with David Brinkley, March 28, 1993.

■ “I think the best evidence I can give that we do a lousy job covering politics is to look at the politicians: Ronald Reagan was President of us for eight years — Ronald Reagan! Reporters should have been writing for the entire eight years of his reign that this man was gone, out of it....He should have been covered as a clown.”
— NBC reporter Bob Herbert during a panel discussion at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in Fall 1992, as reported in a June 21, 1993 National Review article.

■ “In the plague years of the 1980s — that low decade of denial, indifference, hostility, opportunism, and idiocy — government fiddled, medicine diddled, and the media were silent or hysterical. A gerontocratic Ronald Reagan took this [AIDS] plague less seriously than Gerald Ford had taken swine flu. After all, he didn’t need the ghettos and he didn’t want the gays.”
CBS Sunday Morning TV critic John Leonard, September 5, 1993.

■ “The legacy of the Reagan administration will be with us for years. The deficit under Reagan totaled more than a trillion dollars. Someday we’re going to have to pay those bills. As officials look to cut spending and taxes at the same time, we can’t afford another round of voodoo economics....I remember that campaign slogan one year ‘It’s morning again in America.’ Well, it may have been morning for some, but for a lot of people in this country it’s become a nightmare.”
— CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley in an April 28, 1996 speech to Benedictine University in Illinois, aired May 11, 1996 on C-SPAN.

■ “If there is any President who does not deserve credit for our current economic prosperity it is Ronald Reagan. The latter part of the 1980s will go down as one of the most poorly-managed, economically reckless fiscal periods in American history.”
— PBS To the Contrary host Bonnie Erbe, February 28, 1998 syndicated column.

■ “Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead! That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the 27th, 1999.”
— NBC co-host Katie Couric opening Today before an interview with Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, who actually wrote that President Reagan was “an apparent airhead.” Morris corrected Couric: “He was a very bright man.”

■ “The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain in a massive state of denial about the party’s four-decade-long addiction to race-baiting....It’s with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican [Party]’s selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out.”
Time’s Jack E. White in a column posted on Time.com on December 14, 2002.

■ “Before Reagan, people sleeping in the street were so rare that, outside of skid rows, they were almost a curiosity. After eight years of Reaganomics — and the slashes in low-income housing and social welfare programs that went along with it — they were seemingly everywhere. And America had a new household term: ‘The homeless.’”
— Reporter Kevin Fagan in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 10, 2004, five days after Reagan’s death.

■ “I don’t think history has any reason to be kind to him.”
— CBS’s Morley Safer recalling the late Ronald Reagan on CNN’s Larry King Live, June 14, 2004.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.