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Former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy in a 1992 photo.
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RONALD REAGAN: 1911-2004

Media's praise of Reagan may soon subside

With the death of a president, journalism observes a grace period free of negatives, analysts say.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published June 11, 2004

As major news coverage begins this morning of President Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington, D.C. - the first such ceremony for a head of state in 30 years - media experts predict a deluge of positive commentary sure to revive charges that journalists have overly lionized a controversial leader.

But MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann had a different take on the days of largely complimentary media reports since Reagan's death Saturday, and fitful recent attempts to offer more balanced memories.

He was surprised the criticism surfaced this fast.

"What you're seeing is the quickest shift in media coverage and general tone in the death of a popular president I've ever seen," said Olbermann, who anchored about four hours of the cable channel's Reagan coverage Saturday. "(It's) the quickest beginning of critical analysis in history."

Still, critics have accused mainstream media sources - particularly network and cable television - of glossing over important facts and rewriting history, marginalizing those most harmed by Reagan administration policies.

The liberal media analysis group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has decried early coverage declaring Reagan the most popular president ever to leave office, citing Gallup poll data showing Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush among five former presidents with higher approval ratings upon retirement.

"We're seeing a regular syndrome . . . a media that is far too uncritical of the powerful, coming out afterward like a drunk on a bender, saying "Woe is us, we didn't ask enough tough questions,' " said Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at FAIR.

But CNN anchor Aaron Brown remains unapologetic for coverage on his show NewsNight that he admits started out less critical of Reagan's legacy.

"Saturday was not a day to analyze the record. . . . (Reagan) had died, and his death was the story," said Brown. "It's not like this was a one-day story. We knew we were going to be in this for a full week, and it would all get said."

For Brown, such balance comes in trying to meet modern-day TV journalism's two roles: as a source of news and an outlet for emotional release.

"Part of what we should do is examine the record," he said. "We also exist as a place for people to come and share this national moment. We come to television to be a part of that national experience."

Indeed, CNN Tuesday presented a debate between two African-American columnists about Reagan's controversial legacy on race, while National Public Radio covered similar ground Thursday. ABC's Nightline Wednesday offered a half-hour report balancing critics (black people and AIDS activists) with Reagan fans.

Olbermann blamed the changing coverage on today's lightning-fast media culture.

"The mourning period for presidents like (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt and (John F.) Kennedy was much longer. . . . It was decades," he said. "(Because) today's news cycle is so accelerated . . . it feels like he's been dead all this time and we've barely talked about (his drawbacks)."

Other likely factors:

Even Reagan's opponents wouldn't speak ill of him.

Journalists, who often rely on political opponents to air criticisms in news stories, found Democrats largely unwilling to speak ill of Reagan's legacy, for fear of looking insensitive during an important election year. And even political foes admitted they liked Reagan personally.

"You're not going to get Tom Daschle, or anybody in a political race to bash the guy," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "After you've said all the wonderful things you can say, then you reach a phase where there's a course correction. . . . (And if) journalists feel they somehow went overboard, (they will) toughen up."

Reagan died on a weekend.

Because his death was announced late Saturday, following rumors Friday that he was gravely ill, TV could easily pre-empt prime-time shows and offer amped up coverage.

"The sheer amount of it took everyone by surprise," said media analyst Andrew Tyndall. "It just went on and on. And when it got to a certain volume . . . the corrective comments had to come."

Separating Reagan's rhetoric from his actions was tough.

He talked about racial harmony, while opposing affirmative action. He decried negotiating with terrorists, but faced a major scandal involving negotiations to trade arms for American hostages with Iran.

Making such distinctions amid eulogizing Reagan proved difficult, said Leroy Sievers, executive producer of Nightline.

"There's a natural tendency not to speak ill of the dead," Sievers said. "That has changed over the past couple of days. As more and more people spoke up, there's a sense that we really need to (be more critical)."

Any undue criticism of Reagan could bring accusation of liberal bias.

Olbermann, Brown and Sievers denied any concern over such accusations. But Rosenstiel noted funeral eulogies for Reagan offered journalists a chance to safely compliment a conservative political icon.

"It will be interesting to see whether journalism we're seeing on Reagan's death becomes the accepted, revised view of the Reagan presidency - almost an unalloyed positive - or a momentary tribute," he added.

[Last modified June 11, 2004, 00:03:22]

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