- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Remembrances, memorials and some sporadic criticism: News coverage of former President Ronald Reagan’s death has been substantial though uneven at times.

Nevertheless, the coverage has comforted a nation in troubled times, analysts said.

“It’s just what the doctor ordered,” said Los Angeles-based psychologist Robert Butterworth.

“For the nation to work, we sometimes need to come together. In this case, we’ve shown we can let bygones be bygones” and unite to honor a former president, Mr. Butterworth said.

Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, characterized the coverage as fair and said he was glad that the U.S. press found Mr. Reagan’s death as worthy of coverage as that of Britain’s Princess Diana.

He also called for a “more rounded picture.”

“The current coverage is too glorifying,” Mr. Gelb said. “I think Ronald Reagan would be embarrassed by it. He was a regular person. He didn’t consider himself a saint.”

Diana’s 1997 funeral was watched on television by 50 million Americans, with some networks citing a 75 percent jump in ratings after her death in a high-speed car crash.

Early numbers released by Nielsen yesterday found cable news viewership up in modest but steady amounts since Mr. Reagan’s death Saturday — up to 17 percent on Fox News and 27 percent on CNN, for example.

Robert Thompson, a media analyst at Syracuse University, deemed the coverage “therapeutic.”

“It’s useful for the nation to go through this kind of civic mourning,” he said.

Primed by recent images of Iraqi prisoner abuse, Americans find a kind of comfort, Mr. Thompson said, in the “quaint and nostalgically pleasant Reagan days.”

David Borman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, saw a clear “line of demarcation” from the remembrances that followed the announcement of Mr. Reagan’s death and CNN’s live coverage of the funeral cortege on Wednesday.

“The procession was a genuine piece of American history. We clearly wanted our viewers to watch these moments unfold and experience them without commentary,” Mr. Borman said.

“We had quiet stretches for 20 minutes and probably broke every rule of cable news. There was no need for us to intrude ourselves on the events,” he said, adding that he admired C-SPAN’s treatment yesterday.

“They featured live sound and images of the Capitol Rotunda alone,” Mr. Borman said.

Paul Slavin, ABC’s vice president for international news gathering, said Mr. Reagan’s passing was a “tremendous opportunity to address a whole lot of things — from the man’s legacy to an examination of issues which are still ongoing.”

Viewers could “remember the passion of Reagan’s presidency, to look back and look forward again,” Mr. Slavin said. “The coverage has not been excessive. It has been a great learning opportunity.”

But there are always questions, he said, “about appropriateness.”

“When we examine a legacy in terms which are sometimes critical, sometimes laudatory. Obviously, when you watch his funeral caisson rolling up the avenue, that is not the time to talk about Mr. Reagan’s judicial choices,” Mr. Slavin said.

The Media Research Center’s Brent Baker, however, called some broadcast coverage “cheap political swipes at inappropriate times,” noting that ABC’s Peter Jennings commented that Mr. Reagan “did not reach out to African-Americans” as the presidential hearse appeared.

Mr. Baker also called attention to “a coordinated attack on Ronald Reagan’s image” in several newspapers and the Associated Press, particularly “centered on the views of liberal black leaders and AIDS activists.”

Indeed, some observers did not spare criticisms.

“It’s as if Gore Vidal coined the phrase ‘United States of Amnesia’ for the moment of Ronald Reagan’s death,” a Nation editorial stated yesterday. “Most of the media coverage was a romanticized hail-to-the-chief celebration of a majestic figure rather than a realistic examination of what this man did for, or to, the country and the world.”

“Reagan in death is still highly controversial for many listeners,” National Public Radio’s ombudsman Jeffrey Dworkin noted yesterday, adding that some may “accuse journalists of writing a hagiography. Others feel nostalgic for his brand of presidential politics and object to any criticism as churlish and disrespectful.”

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