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Commentary: Wall-to-Wall Reagan

Monday, June 14, 2004

The death of Ronald Reagan was the biggest national news story this week, and played to big TV audiences. But WNYC's Brian Lehrer wants to acknowledge those of you who thought you were experiencing an alternate reality.

So let's be honest about this week of wall-to-wall Reagan. A lot of people couldn't get enough, but a lot of people thought it was way over the top. Cable news ratings were up 20 to 30 percent nationally in mid-week. But I've also heard from people who said by Tuesday, they had decided to take a media vacation until it was all over.

It's no secret who's in which camp. The people who did not LIKE the 40th president are the ones who found it too much to bear. But that says a lot about what was wrong with the coverage. As if it was an election, the news programming was winner-take-all.

Here's what I mean:

Ronald Reagan was, of course, a gigantic figure on the world stage. He won two landslide elections and most Americans approved of his work. But remember what a landslide is in the context of presidential elections. In 1984, his bigger win, Reagan got 58 percent of the popular vote. More than 41 percent voted against him. He never cracked ten percent of the black vote.

His average approval rating while in office was 57 percent which still leaves lots of people out. and just three years ago, in july 2001, his retrospective approval rating in an abc news-washington post poll was 66 percent. More than a quarter of all Americans looked back on his job as president with disapproval. As abc put it at the time, Reagan still incites sharp partisan differences.

But that's why opponents of Reagan felt like they entered such an alternate universe this week every time they turned on their sets. The love-fest made it sound like Reagan was everyone's cuddly uncle. The single dominant fact of the week was that even those who disapproved of his actions liked him personally.

But tell that to people in the AIDS community who consider Reagan a killer for not taking the disease more seriously early on. Tell it to Black people will never forgive him for being soft on apartheid in the name of freedom from Communism. I could go on.

But our winner-take-all media dumbed down coverage of the Reagan legacy, by portraying him simply as popular. The emotional divide that lingers around Reagan's record was barely acknowledged. I guess that worked for ratings. But it was pretty unreal.

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