AS HIS PRESIDENCY draws to a close, Ronald Reagan's relationship with the American news media remains as charmed as ever. What will the press do when it doesn't have Reagan to fawn over anymore? Television journalists in particular may be sorry to see him go, judging from the celebratory coverage they accorded him at the Republican convention last week. CBS's Bill Plante, for example, previewed the president's Monday night speech by promising that Reagan would "leave his audience with a big finish." And ABC's David Brinkley went so far as to speculate that Reagan might someday be seen as "one of the greatest presidents in history."

In fact, Reagan's Great Communicator reputation has been amplified throughout his presidency by news coverage that has been little short of adulatory. Upon Reagan's ascension to power, the media quickly settled into a posture of accommodating passivity from which they never completely arose. Except during the Iran-contra affair and, to a much lesser extent, Reagan's Bitburg cemetery visit, the American news media have shown little stomach for sustained, aggressive reporting on the Reagan administration. As David Gergen, Reagan's former White House communications director, told me, "A lot of the Teflon came because the press was holding back. They didn't want to go after him that toughly."

To be sure, Reagan's public-relations advisers deserve some of the credit for the positive news coverage he received. "This was a PR outfit that became president and took over the country," remarked Leslie Janka, a former Reagan deputy press secretary. "The Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that . . . . But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations."

White House influence over network reporting was so pervasive that former CBS News senior producer Richard Cohen fumed that former White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver "should have been listed as the executive producer on all of our political stories in 1981."

Conflict between the press and the White House is an old story in Washington, and during the Reagan years there were numerous run-ins over issues of national security. Nevertheless, I believe that because of government manipulation and voluntary self-censorship, the major American news organizations too often abdicated their responsibility to report what was really going on in Washington during the Reagan years. Indeed, there were many instances where network and newspaper executives actually stifled their own reporters. For example:

White House correspondent Lesley Stahl's coverage of President Reagan was repeatedly toned down during Reagan's first term on orders of CBS News management. Other CBS Evening News journalists also were pressured to stop what management considered overly negative reporting about the Reagan administration and the economy, apparently in hopes of not offending viewers during the ratings war that erupted after anchorman Walter Cronkite's retirement.

The campaign to soften CBS coverage of Reagan took many forms, ranging from fostering a newsroom atmosphere where, in one producer's words, "there was a sense in the air that we don't want any more of the predictably liberal stories" to, in Stahl's case, substantial rewriting of scripts. Stahl refused several requests for an interview to discuss the issue in detail. But when asked in a brief telephone conversation about colleagues' claims that her scripts repeatedly were changed to make her coverage less critical of the president, she said: "Well, all that happened, I can't deny it."

"Lesley had some fairly contentious phone calls with the folks who run the show," recalled Brian Healy, a senior producer on the broadcast. "Joe Peyronnin {then a senior Washington producer and now bureau chief} was the point man with Washington and the mediator. He'd take her copy and clean it up for style and editorial and send it to New York, and they'd send it back to him -- it'd be the executive producer, Howard Stringer or Lane Venardos. Lesley would scream and holler and yell at Joe, and most often comply to a degree; Joe would yell at them. It was very contentious in that way." (Stringer, Venardos and CBS anchorman Dan Rather all refused to be interviewed.)

Tom Bettag, then one of the senior producers (and currently the executive producer) of the CBS Evening News, defended the network's coverage of Reagan on editorial grounds: "We were trying in our coverage not to be knee-jerk." But he said that other CBS officials believed that upbeat, "patriotic" reporting about the president would make viewers feel good and thus produce higher ratings. "There is that line of argument, and that generally comes from corporate people," he said.

New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner did some of the toughest reporting from Central America during the early Reagan years, highlighting violations of human rights by the government of El Salvador, a U.S. ally. But Bonner was removed from the beat in 1983 after conservatives in and outside the Reagan administration mounted a pressure campaign accusing him of being too sympathetic to the Salvadoran rebels.

A.M. Rosenthal, then executive editor at the Times, denied that State Department pressure influenced his decision to recall Bonner or, for that matter, that he had any criticisms whatsoever of Bonner's reporting. Bonner simply needed more training, Rosenthal said, if he was to become the sort of well-rounded reporter that the Times needed. Bonner himself, however, said that "the real problem was that my reporting didn't fit the tenor of the times, or of the Times under Abe Rosenthal."

The Iran-contra affair was widely regarded as a vindication of the American press, but this interpretation owed more to the remarkable passivity of the media during Reagan's first six years in office than to any valiant behavior on its part during the scandal that shook his presidency. In fact, the press all but missed the Iran-contra story, in several ways. Most news organizations came astonishingly late to the story and were easily diverted by the search for the so-called "smoking gun" from the fundamental constitutional and foreign-policy issues at stake. And the television networks, in particular, proved all too willing to give up the chase, despite obvious implausibilities in the White House explanation of what happened.

The networks' interest waned once Vice Adm. John Poindexter testified that he hadn't informed the president about the diversion of Iran arms-sale profits to the contras. "It was a function of two things," explained NBC's Chris Wallace. "The impeachment issue had been answered as well as it's ever going to be . . . . Also, the key witnesses had spoken, the committees had marshalled their evidence, there wasn't much more to say. Some people say, well why not keep after it? But we shouldn't take the position of pushing the story beyond what the information is."

Developing a sophisticated new model for manipulating the media was central to the White House's success in selling the official version of Reagan's presidency to the American public. Thus an extensive public-relations apparatus was established within the White House, run by such senior officials as Gergen, Deaver and former chief of staff James Baker. The apparatus did most of its work out of sight -- in private meetings each morning to set "the line of the day" that would later be fed to the press, in regular phone calls to the three major American television networks intended to influence coverage of Reagan on the evening newscasts.

Of course, it helped enormously that the man being sold was an ex-Hollywood actor. As James Lake, press secretary of Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign, acknowledged, Reagan was "the ultimate presidential commodity . . . the right product."

Shielding the president from the press was a key element in the Reagan news-management strategy. In Gergen's view, "you only have one four-star general in battle, but you've got a lot of lieutenants who can give blood. And if the going is getting hot and heavy, it is far better to have your lieutenants take the wounds than your general."

But the distinguishing characteristic of the Reagan strategy was its reliance upon what former aide Janka called "manipulation by inundation." Unlike their Nixon-era predecessors, explained Janka, Reagan's men came to the conclusion "that the media will take what we feed them. As long as you come in there every day, hand them a well-packaged, premasticated story in the format they want, they'll go away."

"I think that's true," responded Michael Deaver when asked about this characterization. It was Deaver's job to provide a constant supply of such visually attractive stories -- the kind television journalists in particular found irresistible. "The only day I worried about was Friday, because it's a slow news day," said Deaver. "That was the day that bothered me most, because if you didn't have anything, they'd go find something!"

The Reagan PR apparatus made the presentation of issues, rather than their substance, the pre-eminent consideration. "I wouldn't know if {the Strategic Defense Initiative} worked or didn't work," admitted Deaver. "The concept was a great idea . . . . It's a little like the education thing. I mean, what can the president do about education? It's all in the hands of the states. But we went out and talked about the three R's, merit pay for teachers -- I mean, those are all great concepts."

This strategy meshed perfectly with the sort of television-dominated, bottom-line oriented journalism increasingly being practiced in the United States in the 1980s. But the symbiosis between the White House and the press went beyond the technological.

"Today as never before our reporters are part of the {Washington} elite, which seems a reasonable factor in explaining why there is less of an adversarial tone in the coverage," said ABC News Washington bureau chief George Watson. Moreover, journalists and news executives ultimately answered to superiors whose individual and collective self-interest mitigated against strong or consistent criticism of a government as pro-corporate as Ronald Reagan's. As ABC News senior vice president Richard Wald explained, "I have the feeling and we, meaning the establishment, have the feeling that you can say the president is wrong, and you can repeat it once, but after that it becomes a crusade. And television doesn't do crusades, nor do newspapers."

Journalists also played into the White House's hands by confusing rudeness with toughness. Rebelling against access restrictions, some reporters took to shouting questions at the president on the few occasions that they actually saw him. These, Reagan easily deflected with skillful one-liners. Meanwhile, to viewers at home, Reagan was cast as the voice of reason besieged by a pack of unruly hounds.

Adversarial news coverage was also discouraged by widespread allegiance to the journalistic philosophy of objectivity, which held that it was improper to take sides while reporting the news. An extreme version of this philosophy was articulated by ABC News vice president and former World News Tonight executive producer Jeff Gralnick: "It's my job to take the news as they choose to give it to us and then, in the amount of time that's available, put it into the context of the day or that particular story . . . . The evening newscast is not supposed to be the watchdog on the government."

But in practice, "objective" coverage of the Reagan administration often was far from politically neutral -- largely because of its overwhelming reliance on official sources of information. Emphasizing the statements and actions of officialdom above all else often resulted in woefully one-sided reporting and reduced the press to little more than a stenographer to power. "What we do most of the time is, we really are a transmission belt," said New York Times columnist James Reston.

Adhering to its notions of impartiality made the press, in effect, a hostage to the debate within the Washington elite -- a debate which, during the Reagan years, often seemed all but non-existent. Normally, reporters would turn to the opposition party for the critical sentiments needed to balance stories about the president. But the Democrats, intimidated by exaggerated impressions of Reagan's popularity, repeatedly shrank back from challenging Reagan's basic premises, thus ceding the command position in the battle for public opinion to the White House.

Washington is above all a city of conformity where political actors (the media included) are forever trimming their ideological sails and modulating their personal opinions in order to remain safely within the bounds of the prevailing consensus -- a consensus that spun rightward at an accelerating pace throughout Reagan's presidency. "All of journalism has moved to the right," remarked Newsweek editor Maynard Parker. When Reagan arrived in January 1981 to become the 40th president of the United States, he was blessed to inherit a national press corps that had long since abandoned the mildly adversarial posture of the late Nixon years in favor of a more cautious and deferential attitude toward conservative ideology and authority.

"The return to deference," explained Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, "was part of the subconscious feeling we had . . . . You know, initially after Watergate the public was saying about the press, 'Okay, guys, now that's enough, that's enough.' . . . I think we were sensitive to that criticism much more than we should have been, and that we did ease off."

The fundamental problem was that the media during the Reagan years became part of, and were beholden to, the structure of power and privilege in the United States. As central members of Washington palace-court society and creatures of the national establishment, the media institutionally were disinclined to offer basic criticisms of a presidency that above all else articulated and advanced the interests of the American elite. "We share the same basic assumptions of bankers, lawyers and the rest of the establishment," noted CBS senior producer Tom Yellin.

The news media have become the most influential actors on the American political stage. No matter who is elected president in 1988, the quality of media coverage and therefore of the nation's political debate promises only to get worse unless the men and women of the media return to first principles -- and live up to the concept of an independent press established some two hundred years ago by the American Revolution.

Mark Hertsgaard writes for The New Yorker and is the author of "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," to be published next month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, from which this article is adapted.