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Bay Area papers go all-out for Reagan

Chronicle, Mercury News heap far more praise on deceased 'icon' than 2 New York standard-bearers


Analysis by Michael Stoll and Kate Cheney
Posted June 9, 2004

Readers of the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle could be forgiven if they didn't recognize the depiction of Ronald Reagan that dominated Sunday and Monday's editions. Both papers suspended objectivity and contradicted their past reporting to describe a "hero" and an "icon." The Mercury News headlined its coverage, "A great American life."

The extraordinary burst of coverage -- about 10 pages in the Chronicle and 22 in the Mercury News on Sunday alone -- contrasted with scant attention granted the last president to die, Richard Nixon in 1994, as well as much more balanced reporting on the Reagan legacy in the New York Times. Even the nation's leading financial paper, the Wall Street Journal, presented a far more critical appraisal of the 40th president, portraying him as a controversial and fiercely ideological figure whose impact is "contested" to this day.

"It was not very helpful ... reminding those of older generations and telling new generations what the Reagan legacy meant to our society and the world," Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said of the Chronicle's story. "It made only passing references to his history of illegal and socially damaging policies."

Obituaries of important people should be "honest assessments, warts and all," he added. "Not even Churchill escaped that. The best news organizations no longer adhere to the ancient Latin aphorism, 'speak no ill of the dead.'"

Coming five months before a presidential election in which one candidate is wrapping himself in Ronald Reagan's mantel, coverage in the Bay Area's flagship newspapers raises questions of political favoritism.

Rosy view of ex-president

While coverage may shift as the week progresses, the first-day story is often the most vividly remembered. A Grade the News analysis of front-page and first-section news stories about the former president on Sunday reveals that both Bay Area papers contained four to five times as many positive assessments of Mr. Reagan's life as negative ones.

The Chronicle's cover report contained 58 paragraphs that cast Mr. Reagan in a positive light. Only 13 paragraphs tipped toward the negative, and 38 were neutral or mixed. The Mercury News' package of front-section stories contained 119 positive paragraphs and 25 negative, with 67 neutral or mixed.

By contrast, the two New York papers offered more sober, objective reports on Mr. Reagan's legacy. The Journal's first Reagan story on Monday (the paper is not published on weekends) contained seven positive paragraphs, 12 negative and 19 neutral.

The New York Times obituary was both lengthy and more critical than positive. With a neutral headline, "Ronald Reagan Dies at 93; Fostered Cold-War Might; And Curbs on Government," the Times story contained 48 positive paragraphs, 70 negative and 71 neutral or mixed paragraphs.

The Chronicle devoted 10 pages to Ronald Reagan's death.

The Grade the News analysis was conducted by two journalists, but their results were not cross-checked to establish scientific reliability.

Style vs. substance

One reason for the difference was that the New York papers concentrated mostly on Mr. Reagan's public-policy legacy. The Journal focused on the effects of "Reaganomics" -- the contentious proposition that deficits don't matter because tax cuts spur unparalleled economic growth. The Times explored Mr. Reagan's economic policy, foreign affairs, labor relations, health policy and the origins and effects of the Iran-Contra scandal.

The Bay Area newspapers, however, focused more on the human-interest story of an undeniably charismatic man.

The Mercury News devoted a quarter-page to a single headline, "The mystique," and two full pages to reviewing Mr. Reagan's movies. The back cover of a 16-page special section on the former president was more tribute than journalism. Below a picture of Mr. Reagan striding off down a White House portico, it simply quoted the president's farewell message "when the Lord calls me home."

Neither the Mercury News nor the Chronicle ignored the controversies that so marked Mr. Reagan's career. But the Iran-Contra scandal, the gassing of U.C. Berkeley student activists in the 1960s, the tardy response to the AIDS crisis, tripling the federal deficit, "trickle-down" economics, firing striking union employees and arming the Contra rebels in Nicaragua were muted if reported at all.

While both the Journal and Times presented Mr. Reagan's obituary as one story among others meriting the front page, his passing was the only story on both the Chronicle's and Mercury News' front pages. Devoting the entire page to a single story is generally reserved for cataclysms, such as the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Neither New York paper published a separate pull-out section; both the Mercury News and Chronicle did.

Contrast with Nixon coverage

When Richard Nixon passed away on April 22, 1994, the next day's Mercury News ran a columnist's take on a loss by the Sharks hockey team as its biggest front-page story. The president's death rated only three stories that day; just one was written by a Mercury News staffer. Mr. Nixon's death was the biggest story on the Chronicle's front page, but none of the five stories were written by a Chronicle reporter. In terms of newsworthiness, Mr. Reagan received almost three times more space than Mr. Nixon in the Chronicle, and 11 times more in the Mercury News.

The Mercury News devoted 22 pages to Ronald Reagan's death.

The coverage of the former California congressman who went on to win the presidency in 1968 also was more negative than positive, in both newspapers. So if "speak no ill of the dead" is the operating philosophy in these newsrooms, it's developed during the last decade.

Why the disparity?

Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal argued that the favorable descriptions of Mr. Reagan were quotes, and thus do not diminish the paper's objectivity. As an example of balance, he mentioned a story in the special section headlined "Conservatives' hero -- liberals menace."

The choice of positive rather than critical quotes is made by reporters and editors, however. We counted only three negative paragraphs in the above article, which ran 50 paragraphs. In fact, not a single Reagan critic was named or quoted. The balance did not extend past the headline.

Mr. Rosenthal later cautioned against a rush to judgment: "You'd have a better and fairer analysis if you read us or anyone else over a week, not just one day. We knew we would come back over a several days on Reagan and the day he died is not necessarily a day to do everything on him."

Matt Mansfield, deputy managing editor of the Mercury News, said: "I would only ask that you look at the totality of our coverage as an accurate picture of how we are covering the former president's death. I believe you will find that we are justly critical of Reagan's policies and acknowledge that in both the main obit and the special section."

The irony may be that the newspapers had too much time to write the stories, not too little. James Bettinger, director of the Knight Fellowships at Stanford and a former Mercury News editor, pointed out that "obituary packages like this one have been written long in advance, and in my experience, not enough editorial attention is paid to these advance obits. They often get written by someone who has other more pressing priorities (the chief political correspondent, say), and edited similarly. Once edited, they get updated but rarely rethought -- certainly not with the kind of thinking that says, 'When this story runs it's going to be the most important one in the paper.'"

Revising history

During Mr. Reagan's two terms in office both the Chronicle and the Mercury News found much to criticize. Though coverage varied, months of his administration passed in which the biggest headlines were damning. One, in the Chronicle on Nov. 1, 1986, read: "Reagan sneaking reservists to Honduras, Boxer says" -- the article charging that the administration was breaking American law, "to escalate our involvement in Central America." Columnist Jon Carroll wrote two weeks later: "So once again, Americans are in the position of being ashamed of their own government. ... Once again, Americans have been betrayed by closet monarchists supported by the president."

But in Sunday's special section, an article summing up Iran-Contra stated that Reagan "not only survived but was essentially forgiven -- by the country" and the prosecution. No polling evidence for the claim was included.

The Mercury News also, at times, expressed frustration with the 40th president. "The Reagan administration's use of the NRC to shortcut the cabinet, Congress and CIA and run secret ops out of the White House to Nicaragua and Iran has backfired," read a 1986 editorial.

Political implications

"Americans are going to be focused on President Reagan for the next week," Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie told the New York Times Monday. "The parallels [with President Bush] are there. I don't know how they could miss them."

But it's not clear it is the Republicans will benefit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview that lionizing Mr. Reagan may not help Mr. Bush.

"Reagan is a rallying point for conservatives, not necessarily for the rest of the country," she said. Indeed, identifying with the deceased president may hurt Mr. Bush if voters notice the difference between Mr. Reagan's stirring D-Day commemoration speech and Mr. Bush's flat oration.

 

MORE REAGAN COVERAGE:

Death of a President: Eulogies or Journalism?
NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, 6/9/04

Reagan: Media Myth and Reality
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 6/9/04

Remembering Reagan
Transcript of conversation with biographer Lou Cannon, Washington Post, 6/9/04

Network anchors see excess in Reagan funeral coverage
Gail Shister, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/8/04

Celebrating Reagan the man, not the myth
Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe, 6/8/04

Ronald Reagan: Still the Teflon President?
Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, 6/7/04

Papers Hail Reagan, Some Noting 'Mixed Legacy'
Editor & Publisher, 6/7/04

15 Years Later, the Remaking of a President
Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, 6/7/04

 

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