"Good evening. Ronald Reagan said today that the Vietnam war was a noble cause in which the United States tried to help a small country newly freed from colonial rule against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest."
With those words, on Aug. 18, 1980, John Chancellor began the network news campaign against Ronald Reagan.
By leading the newscast with this story phrased this way, NBC News was giving the clear impression that Reagan's remark was wildly insensitive (so insensitive as to make it the top news story of the day) and that he didn't quite know what he was saying. It cast doubt on his fitness as a leader, if not, by implication, on his sanity.
The Washington Post, to cite one newspaper covering the same story, did not find the Reagan remark worth a banner headline or exclamation points. Reagan's Vietnam reference was contained in the eighth paragraph of the continuation of a front-page story on one of his "peace-through-strength" defense policy speeches.
What's happening to Reagan is symptomatic of the wrong-headed ways TV has been covering the 1980 campaign. As usual, there's a fanatical gravitation toward simplicity and simplistics; TV journalists always cop the plea that these limitations are inherent to the medium.
Less defensible is the new Unholy Trinity, the three-scoop threat of TV campaign coverage: a mock-analytical mania on the part of herd-instinct reporters who feel they can't go home at night until they've knocked over a totem pole; rigid stereotyping that composes a candidate's tune and then allows few variations on it to creep into coverage; and the tendency to judge candidates only by television standards -- by how they perform, how they look and whether they fluff their lines.
With its report on Reagan's Vietnam remark, and the attempt to blow it out of proportion, NBC News was establishing a pattern for Reagan that the other networks to some extent merrily and lazily emulated.
But nobody did it better than NBC News.
On Aug. 27, Chancellor led "NBC Nightly News" with another alleged Reagan gaffe: his statement that the country's economic condition amounted to a "depression." Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post interpreted this remark to readers as a colossal dumb blunder on Reagan's part, though it was noted that the term "depression" was contested by some.
It was also contested by NBC News. "Depression is the wrong term," lectured Chancellor, citing "one expert," unnamed, although there were plenty of people to go on record. From Columbus, Ohio, reporter Heidi Schulman reported that "Reagan was again forced to explain himself."
Then Chancellor thoughtfully pointed out the percentage of technical difference between a recession and a depression, adding, "Reagan's opponents will make much of that difference." But they didn't. They didn't have to. NBC had done it for them.
This led naturally enough into a report on "Reagan's Troubles" and "snags" and a replay of his "noble cause" remark. But who was really being shocked or dismayed by these Reagan remarks? The public, or just NBC News?
Chancellor sounded far more reverent the next night when the lead story was President Carter's economic plan. "Now for some details on the President's new economic plan," said Chancellor, sounding like an administration spokesman at a press briefing. A clip of Reagan's reaction to the plan was cut off in mid-sentence.
On "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" that night, there was more Reagan reaction to the Carter plan and more congressional reaction to it as well. It was treated with more healthy skepticism.
Reagan's ill-advised remark about Carter speaking in Ku Klux Klan country, on Sept. 2, naturally gave NBC News another chance to express umbrage and alarm and to rebuke the candidate by correcting him without attributing a source. "Reagan was factually wrong," Tom Brokaw said flatly. It was reported on NBC the same night that Reagan was greeted with "several loud boos" during a Detroit speech, but on CBS, Bill Plante said Reagan got only "a few boos."
On Sept. 10, Chancellor reported that Reagan "quite predictably" attacked Carter's Rose Garden strategy, a strategy that NBC and the other networks had pretty much been swallowing hook, line and rose. Chris Wallace reported that Reagan was being "very cautious" today, "repeatedly refusing" to make a statement on the possibility of a debate.
Of course he repeatedly refused to make a statement. Network news had intimidated him into tight-lipped retreat. Television was actually encouraging a presidential candidate into silence and then hooting at him for failing to say anything.
Coverage of a presidential election ought to amount to more than a boo-boo count, more than a never-flagging vigil for possible slips of the tongue. We're electing a president, not an announcer.
Another favorite NBC theme in reporting on Reagan relies on his actor's past. Thus Chris Wallace reported of Reagan's campaigning on Sept. 15, "It was a day filled with stagecraft," as if Reagan were the first candidate to practice that particular art. On Oct. 13, Wallace reported that Reagan "put on a Hollywood production today," and, near the end of his report, took a shot at the canditate's age by saying he "finally got a friendly reception -- at a retirement village."
The latest opinion polls that night gave Reagan a slight edge, but NBC insisted on seeing them as Cartersque in their leanings. It was conceded that Reagan was ahead, but that was preceded with Chancellor's gratuitous disclaimer, "If the election were held today -- and it won't be." It was as if viewers were being assured that things would change for the better -- for Carter.
Finally, on Sept. 23, came some NBC's quirkier news judgments of the whole campaign. When Reagan had made statements that NBC found questionable, Reagan got the royal raspberry -- Oh, how could anyone say anything so dumb! But when Carter made his widely criticized suggestion that Reagan was a nuclear warmonger, that one candidate stood for peace and the other for World War III, Chancellor reported flippantly that President Carter was just "having some trouble with his rhetoric today."
To ballyhoo the upcoming Reagan reaction, NBC ran the headline "Reagan Rages" on the screen. When the actual footage of Reagan came up, he was not raging at all. He was talking calmly and quietly, if emphatically, about the Carter statement. But on Carter's day of severe intemperance, it was Reagan who was seen as "raging" by NBC News.
Other networks also seem to have been rougher on Reagan than the other candidates. Partly, it's just an over-interpretive zeal in the air that has afflicted the TV reporters like a virus; they must feel they haven't done their post-Watergate jobs if they don't give viewers what they consider the Real Low-Down.
On ABC's weekend late-night news Aug. 30, Susan King ended a report on Reagan by saying, "He can only lean on old Republican promises that anything would be better than the Carter administration." News report, or movie review?
On the CBS Eevening News of Oct. 7, the graphics chosen to illustrate a story on Reagan's alleged inconsistencies ("Which is the real Ronald Reagan?" asked Bill Plante in Philadelphia) showed big bold X's being plastered across Reagan's face five different times.
Cronkite apologized the next night for the X's but not for the report itself.
Reagan has also, perhaps like any challenger, been the victim of the incumbent's deployment of presidential symbolism. Carter can get on the nightly news, and from the Oval Office setting, with scarcely a whistle. On the day Reagan vowed to name a woman to the Supreme Court, he got upstaged on NBC by Carter pooh-poohing the proposal to an attentive John Chancellor, from the White House.
On the day Reagan agreed to debate, he was upstaged by Carter having a cozy chat with fellow statesman Walter Cronkite, in the White House, on the CBS Evening News.
Neither Reagan nor his advocates have made public complaints about Reagan's treatment by the networks. Of course, any candidate who does -- especially a Republican -- riskes being immediately labeled a Spiro and almost make the press look they're being unpatriotic" with negative coverage, while a challenger may just appear to be a cry-baby.
Powery also conceded that the networks may have overeager to seize upon Reagan slips-of-the-tongue. "Some of us have felt that way," he says. "It seems there is not as much scrutiny of Carter's inconsistencies. Carter's had slips of the tongue, too -- 'Hubert Horatio Hornblower.' Those things happen. When it happens to Reagan it's bigger news than when it happens to Carter."
It's hard not to entertain at least the possibility that Reagan is getting less than a fair shake because one finds more atheists in foxholes than conservative Republicans in network news. Powery thinks conservative Republicans are plagued by the "ancient image that they're against people," the common man and the underprivileged specifically. "Now, if a reporter feels like 'I'm for all the good things,' then subsconsciously he might feel it's his duty" to torpedo a candidacy like Reagan's wherever possible.
Unfortunately, when one candidate is given the bum's rush by television (and another, John Anderson, treated so gently that he becomes Broadcasting's Favorite Son), it isn't only the candidate that's being gypped and betrayed.
It's the whole system. It's the process. It's the people.