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Reagan’s Reelection: How the Media Became All the President’s Men

The politics of 1984 describe a future in which Americans are lied to and manipulated by ruthless political propaganda

Roone Arledge

Roone Arledge in the control room at the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., February 10th, 1980

Steve Fenn/ABC/Getty

Excluding Ronald Reagan, the most influential and intriguing political figure of 1984 was a man who probably thinks of himself as nonpolitical. Like many Americans, he undoubtedly finds most politics boring.

I am thinking of Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, the brilliant innovator who created so many of the visual formats now familiar to us as a nation of television watchers. If you really want to understand the significance of the 1984 campaign, you must look beyond the ranks of the political professionals and focus instead on television moguls like Arledge. He and his rivals at the other major networks have the kind of power that mere politicians only dream of — an awesome capability to manipulate our minds, to choose the ‘images that will dance in our thoughts.

For better or worse, it is Arledge and the few others like him who determine the quality of our political dialogue — whether it is banal and deceptive or realistic and vigorous, whether it helps us face the truth about ourselves as a nation or helps us hide from it.

In 1984, the networks, including Arledge’s, yielded to the techniques of mass propaganda — large lies told through the calculated repetition of soothing imagery and potent symbolism. The harsh facts of contradictory realities were no match for it. In a sense, the networks lost control of their own news programs. If the politics of 1984 describes the future, then Americans are being reduced to a nation of befogged sheep, beguiled by false images and manipulated ruthlessly.

Arledge, in other words, may be dangerous for democracy, probably more dangerous than his competitors at NBC and CBS, because he is so sophisticated and original. Arledge not only understands the potential power of television; he is not afraid to use it. His choice of what to show his audience is not designed to control government or even to propagate his own ideology. As a network executive, his essential purpose is amoral: whatever entertains, whatever draws a crowd, that is what Arledge wants to put in our living rooms.

Yet, when I think about what television has done to debase our politics and what it has failed to do to invigorate our democracy, I find myself pinning my hopes for the future on Roone Arledge. Perhaps I am being too generous. It is possible that he and the other network managers are quite satisfied with the levels of political manipulation embedded in their news broadcasts and therefore have no interest in change. I hope not. If Arledge would do for national politics what he has already done for sports, especially professional football, I can imagine television actually revitalizing our political dialogue, restoring to us honest, intelligent debate over issues of substance.

As a significant cultural figure, Arledge reminds me of William Randolph Hearst, who used the power of his newspapers ruthlessly, to promote his causes and trample his enemies. Less well remembered is that Hearst was also an inventive genius, the pioneering editor who originated so many of the stylistic tricks and story lines we still see in our daily newspapers.

Arledge, like Hearst, has a power to influence our politics that can be both destructive and creative. If Arledge decides that greed and gore and cheap patriotism is where it’s at, then many millions of Americans will think so, too. Yet Arledge understands, perhaps better than anyone else, the paradox of television’s power: the use of technical artifice to create a clearer sense of what is real. That was the essence of Arledge’s brilliance in sports broadcasting. With all his high-tech gimmicks, with his instant replays and his other innovations, with Howard Cosell’s commentary, Arledge — then and now president of ABC Sports — achieved something deeper than simply making football more entertaining. By reinventing the rules of how football is covered, he actually brought the television viewer much closer to the intimate reality of the game. We get right down with the players themselves.

This is what television’s news managers must now do for politics. They have to reinvent the rules for news coverage to escape from the propaganda and bring us closer to what is real about government and politics. That requires imagination, and guts, because powerful politicians are not going to like it when TV ignores their fluff and begins defining political reality on its own. If anyone has the nerve to do it, it is Roone Arledge.

The single most important political event of the 1984 presidential campaign, aside from the economic recovery, was produced by Arledge and his associates, which made it all the more persuasive, because it was not identified as part of anyone’s campaign. The event was the star-spangled Olympic games.

ABC’s coverage was an orgy of patriotic hype, jingoistic cheerleading by supposedly detached sports commentators, and a series of minimelodramas in which heroic young Americans struggled against foreigners with strange names. ”The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” as Arledge would say. The montage of Olympic images delivered an implicit political message: America is back; America is standing tall; America is winning. Foreigners are the enemy, the losers. Dr. Goebbels would have smiled knowingly.

This distorted packaging of the 1984 Olympics, like Hitler’s celebration of German youth at the Berlin games in 1936, violated the original spirit of the Olympics, which were intended to promote friendly competition among individuals, not nations, and peaceful feelings toward others, not nationalistic zeal. (Arledge reportedly toned down the Americanism only after many critics, foreign and domestic, complained aloud.)

But ABC’s jingoism, created from nothing more than the moving pictures of inconsequential athletic contests, was a potent primer for the themes that Ronald Reagan would evoke in his fall campaign. America is strong and feeling good; don’t listen to that negative whining about Central America or Lebanon or the nuclear-arms race. Through the fall, this feel-good sentimentality would wrestle for American minds with the nasty facts about Reagan’s inept foreign policy, but it was no contest. The facts lost.

Arledge, I assume, did not broadcast ”America the Beautiful” from Los Angeles because he is a closet Reaganite who wanted to help reelect the President. He did it because it was great entertainment. Television, as the medium often does, tapped a public sentiment and then exploited it, pumping it up larger and larger, even as it gathered more and more viewers for ABC.

During the 1980 campaign, another of Arledge’s bold strokes had a profound effect on the popular political consciousness — and severely damaged the Democrats. When Iranians kidnapped Americans in Tehran and held them hostage, ABC decided to seize the story and hammer away at it in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst. The network devoted to the crisis a nightly broadcast tagged America Held Hostage.

This repetitious focusing on one story may have violated orthodox news standards; no other single story has received that kind of concentrated coverage in the past, not even the war in Vietnam; but it was great television. It built upon a continuing drama, a suspenseful saga of human anguish and physical danger — a little like the weekly installments of Dallas or Falcon Crest, only better because it involved real men and women. The other networks were eventually compelled to mimic ABC’s intense coverage, and before long outraged Americans were beating up innocent Iranians on the streets and tying yellow ribbons around trees. The images dancing in our heads were metaphors for shame, impotence, frustration. The politically charged slogan invented by a television network — America Held Hostage — was central to the destruction of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The television news managers would argue, of course, that they do not make the news but simply cover events with zest. True enough, but Arledge and the others decide which stories to cover, which metaphors to repeat and which realities to ignore. Very few Americans realize, for instance, that Ronald Reagan has his own ”hostage crisis” in the Middle East — three Americans kidnapped by pro-Iranian Muslims and held somewhere in Beirut — which inhibits his ability to retaliate against terrorists, just as Jimmy Carter was inhibited from retaliating against the Iranian government.

Reagan’s hostages are William Buckley, a political officer from the U.S. embassy in Beirut; Jeremy Levin, a correspondent for the Cable News Network; and Benjamin Weir, a Protestant clergyman. If Reagan orders reprisals against Iran or Syria for terrorist bombings, these three Americans will probably be killed. Why have you not heard more about this before? Because the networks (and most newspapers) decided that a hostage crisis involving three American lives was not as gripping as one involving fifty-two. This inattention may actually help these men get out alive someday. Meanwhile, the media blackout was especially helpful to Ronald Reagan the candidate.

Still, I do not suspect that ABC ignored Reagan’s hostage crisis to help elect the Republican ticket. Nor do I think Arledge hired George Will to act as a commentator on the evening news because Arledge is a right-winger himself. Arledge probably figured that the country was turning conservative and that a conservative slant would be in fashion, a much better draw than the pious Cold War liberalism of CBS’s Bill Moyers or the neutered moderation of NBC’s John Chancellor.

Actually, Will’s scolding comments on the news are so twisted, maybe the expression of his opinions tickles Arledge’s impish nature. On the air one evening, just before the election, Will deplored the various efforts to increase voter participation on the grounds that only smart people like himself should vote. (What next? IQ tests for voter registration?) The next evening Will was even more bizarre. He proclaimed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the murderous riots that followed, evidence of the success of Indian democracy, in the same way the ghetto riots in American cities after the killing of Martin Luther King, in 1968, demonstrated the success of American democracy.

I still don’t think Arledge believes this tripe. I am not sure what, if anything, he does believe about politics. In an interview last year, Arledge said: ”I rarely root for teams; I root for close games. In this business, you try hard to be objective, so I try hard not to get involved on a personal basis. My dad was a Democrat. And in the early days I would’ve been, but these days I seem to spend more time with Republicans.” I asked several of his acquaintances to describe his private political views. They went blank. He never talks politics. One friend searched his memory and concluded: ”Roone’s an ‘honest-to-God patriot,’ that’s all. He really believes in America.” Another friend said Arledge likes to hang around celebrity jocks: they speak the same manly jargon.

Politics, alas, is not like football; it’s a much tougher game. And in 1984 Arledge was not just outplayed, he was drubbed. The deeper contest that was under way in this election year was a struggle over who would control those images dancing in our heads — television managers, like Arledge, or the political managers in the White House. The White House won. With that victory, real power passed from the hands of the TV networks to the image makers surrounding Ronald Reagan. They won by brutally controlling the pictures that Roone Arledge was permitted to broadcast each evening. Reagan’s managers grasped that the antiquated rules of conventional news coverage could be turned upon the medium itself and used to disseminate their own propaganda. It was fiendishly brilliant, and it worked.

The administration’s cynical manipulation of the medium was described, perhaps inadvertently, by George Bush’s press secretary, Pete Teeley. ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it.” Teeley said. And if the daily newspapers point out glaring inaccuracies? ”So what? Maybe 200 people read it, or 2000, or 20,000.”

To appreciate the dimensions of the White House victory, savor for a moment the enduring memories we all carry in our heads of recent presidents: Gerald Ford bumping his head getting out of a plane; Jimmy Carter collapsing with exhaustion in a footrace; Ronald Reagan pumping iron. Or, Ronald Reagan striding briskly across the White House lawn toward a whirring helicopter; Ronald Reagan, eyes glistening, saluting a heroic figure, the widow of a fallen soldier or the firefighter who saved a life; Ronald Reagan, warm and generous, hugging a small black child.

These images were obediently broadcast every evening, by Arledge and the others, whenever the White House provided them, and they conveyed all the qualities that the public identifies with Reagan. These images were deceptive on many levels, but the largest lie was the one known to every White House reporter: Ronald Reagan was seen by the American people as alert, active, in command; but the truth is, Reagan is passive and often confused, manipulated by his own staff and not in control of policy.

The conventional rules of television coverage permitted this mass deception. The daily photo opportunity portrayed the president at work. Even the tedious helicopter shots showed an active Reagan. The staged setting, whether it was a wildlife refuge or a ghetto home, conveyed the desired messages of warmth and concern, regardless of the sarcasm of TV correspondents. The ping-pong coverage of campaign rallies merely amplified the false message — fifteen seconds of Walter Mondale shouting hoarsely, followed by fifteen seconds of the president smiling, surrounded by bunting dyed blue, the color of sincerity.

The false glow of propaganda was dimmed only once: the first presidential debate. Abruptly, the American public saw a Reagan who was quite different from the man whom the TV news had portrayed every evening. The president was spacey, stumbling, occasionally incoherent and wildly inaccurate. He was not in command of himself, much less the government. Many Americans, even committed Reagan supporters, were troubled by what they saw. Was the Gipper losing it? Was he senile? My own reaction was puzzlement that anyone should have been surprised. Reagan may indeed be slowing down because of his age, but his fumbling confusion is not new. He has always been that way — that is what the TV news and the print media have concealed from the public.

How could this happen? The White House managers understood from the start that Reagan looks wonderful on screen for fifteen seconds, but he turns soggy and often speechless if he has to talk on his own for more than a few minutes. This was obvious again and again at his televised news conferences, which is why there were so few of them. But most TV viewers do not watch press conferences. All they see is the fifteen-second clip used later on the news programs, and those usually showed Reagan at his best. The first debate, even as carefully controlled as it was by the White House, was probably the first time that tens of millions saw Reagan as he really is — on his feet, thinking for himself, not following a carefully crafted script. He did not look like a strong leader. He looked like a tired old man.

This moment in the campaign suddenly illuminated the reality that the TV managers had not had the courage to face. The Wall Street Journal broke the ice with a tough and well-reported article on the age issue, assessing the odds for presidential senility in a second term. That evening all three networks ran devastating stories on the same question, stringing together old videotapes of Reagan that portrayed him as a flake. The most vicious piece was on ABC, which pulled out a two-year-old clip of Reagan falling asleep during his audience with the pope to illustrate this supposedly new insight into the president’s character.

Leaving aside the question of Reagan’s true capabilities, this sudden flip-flop of television images demonstrated how easily reality is manipulated by the medium’s selection of moving pictures. Television can trivialize a president, as it did with Ford and Carter, or it can idealize him, as it has with Reagan.

Except for the gutsy initiative of the Wall Street Journal, the major newspapers were no better than television. The press was also an accomplice to the White House propaganda regime, though in a different way. The leaders of the print media like to sneer at television’s limitations, but their condescension masks another shift of power that took place under Reagan: whatever the newspapers printed about Reagan, no matter how harsh, became almost irrelevant; only the pictures really mattered.

Still, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and occasionally a few other newspapers, can affect the mass audience indirectly, because these are the newspapers that the TV managers read and rely on for cues about the news. The quality and originality of TV news has improved enormously in recent years, but the networks still betray a basic insecurity about their own judgment. If the Times or the Post says it is news, then the networks will jump on the story with full confidence.

In that sense, the Times and the Post, and to a lesser extent the Journal, abdicated their responsibilities in 1984. They were as passive as the networks in accepting the deceitful language and false premises of the White House propaganda. First, Walter Mondale and the Democrats were endlessly portrayed as the candidate and the party of the special interests. I saw countless stories about it, but I do not recall a single account of the special interests supporting Reagan — the oil industry, the automobile makers, defense contractors, banks, the nuclear-power industry, to name a few — and how Reagan rewarded those interests during his first term. The newspapers were obsessed by Geraldine Ferraro’s finances and her family’s alleged connections with the Mafia. They ignored the established facts about George Bush’s connections with the drug industry, and how he took care of those interests as vice-president.

Second, the print media meekly accepted a premise yet more crucial to the fall campaign: they agreed not to question the White House assertion that the administration had no intention of raising taxes or cutting major programs like Social Security in Reagan’s second term. I doubt if very many working reporters actually believe that, yet they accepted the lie and repeated it with hardly a whimper of dissent. As a result, there was no sustained reporting to ferret out the truth. That left Mondale horribly exposed — because he had spoken honestly about the need to raise taxes to reduce Reagan’s horrendous deficits. One leading columnist actually scolded Mondale for bringing up the subject.

The truth about Reagan’s ”secret plan” almost got out anyway, despite the press. Early in October Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan told reporters that the administration would probably propose a modified flat tax after the election. This was good news for the rich, because it would mean a huge reduction in their income-tax rates. Did the Post or the Times run stories explaining the implications of this idea, asking whose taxes would be raised by it? No, they buried the story on the financial pages and pretended it was not relevant to the political campaign. The Wall Street Journal did better with the subject, but not much better. Nor did any of these newspapers see any political import in the news that at election time the economy was slowing down rapidly, threatening a new recession. Only if the country is back in recession next year will Reagan keep his promise not to raise taxes — and his deficits will balloon even larger.

The press also fell under the spell of the video image. Political coverage focused obsessively on so-called campaign themes and endless reports on the horse race. The newspapers, with a few honorable exceptions, forfeited the one game at which they will always be better than television: tough-minded examination of the facts. The Times, to its credit, did run a series on Reagan’s record, but the analysis was not especially tough. Overall, Reagan’s performance was a non-subject. Why examine the actual record of the Reagan administration, the real inequities and unfair rewards, if everyone is swept away by this fervent ”new patriotism”? If the major newspapers had done their duty, it’s possible that the outcome would not have been altered in the least. But that’s not the point.

Why were these newspapers, renowned for their aggressive reporting in the past, so limp in 1984? My own guess is that the Times and the Post are reacting to the battering they have taken from right-wing critics in recent years. They reacted by sheathing their swords. It’s a lot easier not to challenge White House authority, especially when the president looks like a sure bet for reelection. No one can accuse a newspaper of liberal bias if it narrows its coverage and dutifully reprints the latest official bilge. Those bruised editors and reporters are going to be disappointed, I think. Conservatives will continue to attack the Post and the Times for left-wing bias, because they know it works: the more they attack, the milder these publications will become. This might also help explain why the Wall Street Journal‘s political coverage was so much stronger. That paper is immune. No one will ever credibly accuse the favorite paper of American business of being dangerously leftist.

If the most influential newspapers are weak-spirited, it’s certainly asking a lot to expect Roone Arledge and other network executives to take the lead in reforming the news. Yet I think the reforms we need will come, if they come at all, from TV people like Arledge who understand the medium’s potential. In 1976, when Arledge was still known only for sports, he revealed his intellectual sophistication about television in an interview with Playboy magazine. ”You must use the camera,” he said, ”and the microphone, to broadcast an image that approximates what the brain perceives, not merely what the eye sees. Only then can you create the illusion of reality.”

”In other words,” he was asked, ”you distort reality in order to make it seem real?” His reply: ”Exactly, but you must exercise the restraint to stop before it becomes surreal.”

This insight could provide an excellent starting point for Arledge and others to reexamine the images they are putting in our heads. Is the news they broadcast on politics real or is it surreal? This question, honestly answered, would lead them to some rather radical conclusions and, I believe, a decision to take back control of their newsrooms. In 1984, our politics became surreal — quite satisfying on the level of mythology — but dangerously detached from the real life of governing.

Roone Arledge, to put it bluntly, must have the nerve to examine each day’s offering of canned images — the staged photo opportunity, the dreary shot of the helicopter departure — and ask one question: Is this really news or is it empty propaganda? If the TV networks actually applied this test, the White House would have to be more forthcoming — or else lose its valuable airtime.

Beyond that declaration of independence, I hope Arledge plunges forward bravely in the area where he is most talented: inventing new visual formats to convey reality. Arledge’s introduction of new techniques has already contributed a lot, from the excellence of Nightline to David Brinkley’s freshness on Sunday mornings. But the most important questions come back to the evening news — how can television’s magical ability to leap about visually in time and space be used to convey honest messages?

Only a video mind can imagine the answers. Arledge is right, for instance, to want to limit the coverage of our antiquated national conventions. They are fake and outmoded. To go a step further, so are campaign rallies. The only real reason candidates continue to stage mammoth rallies is because it’s the surest way to get TV coverage. Could imaginative television find a new and more rational form for getting those candidates on the air, minus the corny balloons and the shouted slogans? How would Arledge, for instance, design a debate between candidates so that the event would be both good television and more informative? Is there a way that TV news could do a ”reality check” periodically, testing the validity of the images it broadcasts from competing politicians against what it knows are contrary facts? What we need as television viewers, Roone, is the political equivalent of the instant replay.

Obviously, these are all tricky questions, the answers to which will require a higher level of integrity and professionalism from television news managers. Even then, reform of our politics will probably require more than that — the public will have to demand that television give away some of its precious air time to candidates and parties so that they can broadcast their own messages, free of interference from television managers. Some of these messages will be bilge; some will be informative. Let the audience decide.

That may sound radical, but free airtime for political candidates is routine practice in European democracies. Everyone gets ten or fifteen minutes to sing his or her own song. This would improve the political dialogue, but it would not eliminate by itself all the things that are wrong with the news coverage of politics. We would still need disinterested journalists to examine competing political claims and judge whether the words are true or false.

But first the public itself has to grasp the dangers of mass propaganda. The experience of 1984 is dispiriting, but all of us are still learning to live with this powerful medium, just beginning to see how it influences our thoughts and actions. As Americans become more sophisticated about video images, perhaps they will be less easily deceived by rosy sunsets and red, white and blue balloons. At least I hope so. The most hopeful news I heard this year was the weary comment of a network correspondent. ”Everyone has become his own TV critic,” he remarked. ”Now when you go out to interview someone from Main Street, in the middle of Ohio, they know they have to talk in fifteen-second bites.”

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