In case you hadn’t noticed, Ronald Reagan died last Saturday.
Watching the event unfold on television in the wake of Mr. Reagan’s death was eerie. Certainly, many of us had grown up in America reading about how Pravda and TASS, the respective newspaper and television agencies of the old Soviet Union, created cults of personality out of whole cloth for that country’s leaders. And we used to laugh at how our imaginary Russian counterparts bowed down so uncritically to their comic-book dictators. How could they believe such unvarnished rubbish?
So, it was the height of irony to watch the media descend into what promised to be an unprecedented weeklong orgy of mourning for America’s 40th president and California’s 33rd governor, whose death at age 93 ended a decade of twilight induced by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The tone of the media, far more hagiographic than it was objective, was somehow fitting: As president in 1987, Reagan vetoed an effort to write the Fairness Doctrine, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy in effect since 1949, into federal law, after both the House and Senate passed the bill by large margins; Reagan’s handpicked director of the FCC, Mark Fowler, subsequently dismantled the doctrine. Consequently, the media, which even then were being consolidated under the ownership of wealthy conglomerates, increasingly began to speak with a singular voice.
The result would have made Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung laugh. Here was the life of Ronald Reagan, an avowed anticommunist, being painted in spectacularly rosy hues, from his genesis in Tampico, Ill., in 1911 to his stints as a sportscaster, actor and company tout and culminating in his roles as governor, president and father of America’s conservative counter-revolution. The media genuflected with the kind of monochromatic zeal that would have turned an old commie propagandist green with envy. Any codger with a misty-eyed personal account of “Old Dutch” was dutifully trotted out in front of the cameras. The only things missing were glowing descriptions of President Reagan’s swim across the widest point of the Yangtze River every morning. Oh, and a few other minor details, such as Reagan’s role in the savings-and-loan debacle, Iran-Contra and a deregulatory environment that created a field day for crooks and swindlers.
But we do not come to speak ill of the dead, and former President Reagan was, by most accounts, an affable fellow. However, the media environment he helped create is far less affable, as journalist Robert Parry pointed out:
“The U.S. news media’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s death is putting on display what has happened to American public debate in the years since Reagan’s political rise in the late 1970s: a near-total collapse of serious analytical thinking at the national level.”
As a putatively free society, we should be debating Reagan’s legacy rather than kneeling before it. To paraphrase candidate Reagan in the 1980 presidential debates, we should be asking ourselves: Are we better off than we were before the conservative revolution?