Leave canonization to Rome

By John McManus
Posted June 16, 2004

The news on Sunday, June 6, 2004

When an important American dies two cultural expectations collide in the newsroom. On one side is the social norm of respect and tribute for the dead. On the other, the narrower "professional" requirement that journalists report objectively and skeptically -- through clear, rather than rose-colored, glasses.

In their initial coverage, the Bay Area's two largest and best newspapers, the Chronicle and Mercury News, both allowed reverence to overwhelm reporting. In doing so, they let us down.

During his eight years in the White House, President Reagan was as controversial as 20th century presidents came. His supporters say he won the cold war and reinvigorated America. His detractors mention arming the Contras against an elected Nicaraguan government, the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, busting the budget, ignoring AIDS and gassing U.C. protesters.

Surely the man has two sides. But not the display coverage in the Mercury News and the Chronicle.

Start where your eyes did, with the front page treatment of our 40th president. Both newspapers relegated every other story of the day -- including new violence in Iraq and the 60th anniversary of D-Day -- to inside pages. The Mercury News avoided even a mention of other stories on its cover.

Both papers chose the exact same photo -- one supplied by the White House -- in which Mr. Reagan was posed before the red and white bars of the flag. What other messages can you receive than these: This man embodies American patriotism. This is not only the most important story of the day, but the only one meriting the front page.

"It's propaganda," Fred Turner, assistant professor of communication at Stanford University commented. "I can't think of an equivalent in the modern era of objective journalism," he said of a single individual's photo so dominating the front page.

Dennis Dunleavy, an assistant professor of photojournalism at San Jose State University said, "media use images to reinforce particular points of view or perspectives, and by not offering any other news of the day." In a sense, he added, they're "marketing a myth."

The text was only slightly less hagiographic. Positive paragraphs outnumbered negative by four-and-a-half-to-one in Sunday's extraordinarily voluminous reporting of Reagan's legacy. By contrast, consider that the New York Times wrote 10 negative paragraphs for every 7 positives. Even the voice of American business, the Wall Street Journal, published more negative than positive paragraphs in its assessment of Reagan's legacy.

John McManus

Later in the week, a few more critical articles appeared in both newspapers, particularly in the Chronicle. But first impressions and poster-sized cover page images forge the deeper creases in our memory. And, by the close of a week of such lengthy coverage, many readers tire of the story.

When journalists suspend objectivity and revise history for sentimental reasons, we all stand to lose in at least three ways:

• Readers old enough to recall Mr. Reagan's tenure may become confused. Which version of Ronald Reagan is true? The critical portrait during his White House tenure, or the new rendition? Those under the age of 30 may absorb only the newer, more heroic depiction.

• Press credibility may be harmed. If reporters can go soft on the Reagan legacy, where else can't they be trusted?

• Lionizing Mr. Reagan when one candidate in a looming presidential election is claiming his legacy risks tilting the playing field. If Mr. Reagan is remembered primarily as a wise and wart-less leader, George W. Bush's efforts to meld himself with the legend may short-circuit some voters' thinking come November.

I can understand the urge to pay tribute to a popular leader, but we're all better off when journalists leave canonization to Rome.