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June 9, 2004

"Nobody heard what you said." Lesley Stahl's Fable About Reagan and the Press.

They don't care what we say, only what shows on television. Just as Reagan doesn't care if what he says is true. Lost in the visuals, seduced by an actor, the American people don't care about the "tough" reporting we've done. Such was the sense of bafflement in the Washington press corps-- then. But some of the ideas that produced it are still floating around today.

About Ronald Reagan and the press, the story that is told more than any other comes from CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl, who covered the Reagan White House. There are many versions of it floating around because so many different speakers have appropriated the story. (For a sampler, go hereherehere and here .)

A fitting title for Stahl’s tale is, “Nobody heard what you said,” which is also its punchline. The best version I could find online is—no surprise—from Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler, who had occasion to visit with the story in 2000, sixteen years after the events described.

In 1984, Stahl had produced an extended report for CBS trying to document the contradictions between what Reagan said and what he did. It showed him speaking at the Special Olympics and at a nursing home, and reported that Reagan had cut funding to children with disabilities and opposed funding for public health. I’ll let Somerby tell the rest:

Dick Darman clued in Lesley Stahl—it’s all about the pictures. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Stahl aired a lengthy report on the CBS Evening News; it was broadly critical of President Reagan. In her recent book, Reporting Live, Stahl described her thoughts as the piece went to air:

STAHL (page 210): I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.

But that isn’t what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. “Way to go, kiddo,” he said to Stahl. “What a great piece. We loved it.” Stahl replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?” Darman’s answer has been frequently quoted:

STAHL: [Darman replied,] “Nobody heard what you said.”

Did I hear him right? “Come again?”

“You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”

Stahl’s critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darman’s theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.

And that’s the story, Lesley’s Parable. As the Howler wrote: “The anecdote has become quite famous.” But why? Part of my reason in writing about it is to ask of PressThink readers: what do we think of this story today, during a week when the country looks back across Reagan’s life? And why did you think the story resonated so well? (Hit the comment button if you have an idea.)

When I have heard Stahl rehearse it out loud, she usually says to the White House official who is calling to “congratulate” her, not just “come again?” but, “come on, that was a tough piece.” That little protest, from the self-respecting journalist inside, adds something essential, I feel. So does her fear that White House sources would be so angry with the report they would try to punish her— “freeze me out.”

The image of her unaware self, preparing a report so lengthy, so hard hitting that it might wreck relations with the White House, tells us that the parable is about journalism. In it, the gods of the press, invoked by certain magic words—watchdog reporting, in-depth treatment, and above all toughness—fail the believing journalist. If you could do everything right by the newsroom gods, and it didn’t matter, then how powerful are your gods, really?

The story is famous for many reasons. (There have to be multiple reasons to drive so many different authors to it.) From an amusing anecdote about rivalry among Washington insiders, in which a gotcha story about Reagan becomes a gotcha for the journalist herself, there grew a portrait of press futility during the Reagan years.

And since Reagan was regarded by official Washington as the master of poltical television, the code for which is “Great Communicator,” the parable is also about the power of TV. It’s about the American voter’s seduction by television, and the transformation of politics in the media age. It’s the pictures, stupid. “Nobody heard what you said.”

I was in graduate school when it is said to have happened, and I probably swallowed the common reading at first, but by the end of the 1980s the story looked more suspect. I think far less of it now. Did the events in question occur? They probably did, more or less as Stahl said. But then something else happened. Her story became a way to “explain” Reagan and his political success. But it wasn’t a story about politics at all. It told how pictures had, in a sense, repealed politics, leaving political journalism all but impotent.

The story seemed to explain why the Washington press had such a hard time knocking Reagan off stride by reporting about his vacant style (forgetting the name of a cabinet member), or his abuse of anecdote (taking stories from the movies without realizing it) or the contradictions in his record (cutting the budget for programs he later celebrated.)

“Major newspapers would run stories on all the facts he had mangled, a practice that faded as it became clear that most Americans weren’t terribly concerned,” wrote Howard Kurtz this week, “The media dubbed him the Teflon president, and it was not meant as a compliment.” This is an apt summation of the conventional wisdom captured in Stahl’s “a-ha” moment. A puzzle had been solved. Put crudely (but then it’s a crude story) how could Ronald Reagan, intellectual bumbler and fact fumbler, be so popular?

The Parable gives an answer: They don’t care what we say, only what is shown on television. Just as Reagan doesn’t care if what he says is true, as long as it makes a great story. And by extension the American people don’t care about the “tough,” factual reporting we’ve done on Reagan (“five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary!”) because they are lost in the visuals, seduced by a simpler story line than the press could offer by recounting the facts.

“We had the facts, he had the audience.” This sums up a common view of Reagan in the press at that time. And the visuals: Reagan had those too. The people around him—especially aide Michael Deaver, the one Nancy Reagan trusted, and David Gergen, whom all presidents trust—were said to be masters of the irresistable camera angle, the winning picture that will “stick” in people’s minds. Deaver wrote about it in Behind the Scenes (1987):

When the economy started to pick up toward the end of 1980 we were searching for any development that we could showcase to reflect a good trend. I had the president fly to Fort Worth…and he made an announcement at a housing development there, surrounded by a bunch of construction workers in hard hats. You only get forty to eighty seconds on any given night on the network news, and unless you can find a visual that explains your message you can’t make it stick.

For things like that he was called a wizard by the press, and the Reagan team was said to be super-skilled at controlling the pictures.

“Nobody heard what you said” was, and is still today, one of those television age tales that makes the listener feel smart, knowing, media savvy, up-to-date. And while you’re feeling smart with it, you absorb ideas about Reagan, politics and the media that, over time, make you dumber and likely to be dumbfounded by Reagan’s success— to say nothing of his standing as pivot point in American politics.

The best questioning of Lesley’s Parable comes from press scholar Michael Schudson in his book, The Power of News (1995). “Stahl, on reflection—but not, I think, on very much reflection—came to believe that the White House was probably right: all she had done was to assemble, free of charge, a Republican campaign film, a wonderful montage of Reagan appearing in upbeat scenes.” Schudson was suspicious of the story’s circulation, and of writers who saw in it “powerful evidence of the triumph of pictures over words and emotion over rationality in American politics.”

Like me, he began to see the story everywhere. He writes: “It is a major piece of evidence for New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith’s conclusion that the eye is more powerful than the ear in American politics; it opens journalist Martin Schram’s account of television in the 1984 election; it is cited to similar account by Washington Post columnist David Broder and communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson.”

Schudson calls it “telemythology,” which always involves a will to believe, that “Ronald Reagan’s mastery of television led to his mastery of the American public.” This connected to another strong belief among Washington elites “that the general public can be mesmerized by television images,” which in turn connected to Schudson’s notation: “Many journalists shared a kind of ‘gee whiz’ awe at the media skills of the White House” under Reagan. This is exactly the tone in Stahl’s story.

Worse than that, he wrote, was the “assumption that gullible others, but not one’s own canny self, are slaves to the media.” This belief— the “third person effect,” as scholars call it—“is so widespread that the actions based on it may be one of the mass media’s most powerful creations.” These, then, are some of the ideas-in-waiting that helped turn anecdote into revelation. Part of the “pop” in the story is how its interlocking beliefs snap into place:

All of which might be termed Reagan’s legacy within press thinking. It led to Stahl’s exasperation: we don’t stand a chance against this! Ted Koppel is quoted in a BBC report this week as having once taken a slightly different tack:

Ronald Reagan has this wonderful communicator’s ability to convey to the public: “I know you’re smarter about some things than I am, and I know there are some things we both perhaps don’t understand as well as we’d like. I know that experts drive you crazy like they sometimes drive me crazy. Let’s see if we can get right to the heart of this issue. We’re talking about freedom, the American way, evil empires, patriotism, some of the old eternal values that seem to have been shunted aside.” Ronald Reagan rarely, if ever, talks over the public’s head. The public clearly responds very positively to that.

Over their heads. Is this not a fear in Washington journalism, especially at the networks? If we do serious, challenging, in-depth reporting; if we explore the connections and complexities of politics; if we try to show what is actually going on rather than the parade of surface events, we may wind up with an account that is “over the public’s head.” Reagan didn’t seem to have that problem.

So when the press called him the Great Communicator, part of what it meant was: greater than us! “The public clearly responds very positively to that.” But think about it: let’s see if we can get right to the heart of this issue—Reagan’s gift, according to Koppel—is exactly what a good journalist is supposed to do. It takes a keen understanding of politics and what’s at stake; it takes a keen understanding of people and what they care about, to do this particular thing well. Maybe Reagan understood more of politics than the press did, even though the press had better facts. Maybe he was a better explainer in some ways, a better broadcaster in others.

Just how much of a puzzle Ronald Reagan—and covering Reagan—was for the news establishment is audible in this passage from Mark Hertsgaard’s 1988 book, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. (A few excerpts here.)

“I don’t know how to explain why he hasn’t been as vulnerable to the onslaught of the American press as some previous Presidents; it is a hard subject for me,” said ABC News executive vice president David Burke. Agreeing with Ben Bradlee about the extraordinary kindness of Reagan’s press coverage, he continued, “I wonder why. It isn’t because he intimidates us. It isn’t that he blows us away with logic. So what the hell is it?”

Now that’s befuddlement. We don’t have a category for this guy as good press getter, so why he is getting good press?

Burke, a former top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, finally settled on a variation of the Great Communicator theory, long favored by journalists and White House aides alike for explaining Reagan’s positive public image. The key, in this view, was Reagan himself. His personal gifts-an amiable personality, sincere manner, perfect vocal delivery and photogenic persona-made him the television era equivalent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin; he played a tune so gay and skipped ahead so cheerily that others could not help but trust and follow him. To attack such a man was unthinkable. “You just can’t get the stomach to go after the guy,” explained Burke. “It’s not a popularity thing, it’s not that we’re afraid of getting the public mad at us. I think it is a perception that the press has in general of Reagan, that he is a decent man. He is not driven by insecurities, by venality, by conspiracies and back-room tactics.”

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” What the press has to use against presidents is the onslaught of bad news— a wave of critical coverage. In this sense it can “go after the guy,” it can hammer the White House, except when it is unable to go after the guy because he’s either an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford said, or a “decent man,” who is not necessarily aware that what he says isn’t true because…. well, he believes it!

“The reason that Reagan was persuasive, I came to understand, was that he had first persuaded himself of the truth of his utterances,” wrote David Broder on Monday. “Much later, when someone hung the title The Great Communicator on Reagan, I thought to myself, ‘It should be The Great Persuader.’”

Broder’s first thought fits entirely within the universe of Lesley’s Parable. Reagan was convinced he was a big suporter of the Special Olympics, and didn’t care, probably didn’t know, that he had actually tried to cut the budget for such things. The TV pictures show him “caring,” nobody hears the reporter’s words, and the whole package is misleading but highly persuasive. Deception begins with Reagan’s self-deception.

But Broder’s second thought, “not the great communicator, the great persuader,” and not of himself but of others— this points in a different direction. For to persuade is not only a difficult feat, it is in many ways the essence of presidential politics. Certainly it gets to the heart of Reagan’s success. When Bill Clinton, a Democrat, announced in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” we heard the proof of that success.

Another name for it is rhetoric. But the “rhetorical presidency,” which is a school of thought among political scientists who study presidents, is likely to be among the least well-covered because the journalist’s tacit code of understanding states that “rhetoric” is merely what you put over on people.

“That may be the rhetoric, the reality is…” has a deep foundational hold in the press. After all, it identifies the journalist with truth-telling, and sets out what a “tough” reporter like Lesley Stahl should try to do: contradict the rhetoric with dug-up facts. What could be more common sensical than that? Meanwhile, because Ronald Reagan was so good at persuasion “changes that would otherwise have been impossible to imagine did happen,” Broder wrote. “And the world is profoundly different because of him.”

“Nobody heard the words” is spectacularly wrong about Reagan. His words, and the way they connected, were the source of his power. The eye over the ear is wrong about Reagan. Sure, he always looked good, but compared to his oratorical command his command of imagery—and Michael Deaver’s command of wizardry—are ordinary and nothing more. The public is mesmerized by images… is wrong about the public, and about Reagan. He spoke to the nation about the most basic things in politics, which are also the most profound, without going over its head.

This is far more mesmerizing, as I saw for myself last weekend when C-Span replayed his farewell speech to the 1992 Republican convention. He was saying how Americans must remember that, wherever we come from, “in the eyes of god we are all equal. ” I was about to say to myself, in good liberal fashion, “maybe so, but I would rather it be stressed we are all equal in the eyes of the law,” when Reagan continued his thought.

It’s not enough to be equal in god’s eyes, he said, we must also be equal “in the eyes of each other.” Looking at him, I believed it. That is a very good statement of the democratic creed. It is not necessarily a comforting statement to Republican partisans. And it is a far more interesting and challenging statement than: we need equality before the law. (Although I would not say more important.)

Equal toward each other. This is not a principle the Washington press cared to follow with Reagan himself. The amiable dunce, the Teflon president, the Great Communicator, the cowboy, the lazy and forgetful and quite possibly senile man, the self-deceiver, the decent fellow who doesn’t know much but puts on a great show, the bumbler—- none were at all adequate. They sound even duller now.

Not only did ideas like these under-estimate Reagan, and his political gifts, in almost criminal fashion; they also separated journalists from the majority of the country that eventually warmed to Reagan. Thus, Lesley Stahl with her parable was reckoning at too great a distance from the Americans she herself had tried to persuade in her “documentary in Evening News terms.”

In swallowing, whole, Darman’s cynical and self-serving lesson, “nobody heard what you said,” she was waving bye-bye to her viewers’ intelligence, but then flattering the listeners to her story, with its savvy take on media age politics, its illusion of deep insight, its phony a-ha moment, its superficial tone of despair. It never ocurred to Stahl, I think, that getting her to split the public in her mind—those gullible viewers vs. we savvy listeners to her story—might have served Darman’s purposes all along.

There’s a simpler explanation for all this, and some are content with it. Journalists are east coast establishment, big government liberals. Reagan was a west coast conservative who believed that government was the problem. They couldn’t understand him because they weren’t anything like him in their basic beliefs. So they blamed it on television, and credulous Americans. No doubt this has something to do with it, and one could argue that the birth of Fox News Channel was right there.

For better or worse, Reagan was a man of large ideas. Ted Kennedy said it: “It would be foolish to deny that his success was fundamentally rooted in a command of public ideas.” But do journalists really believe that big ideas count in politics, and do they know how to cover them? I would say no, in general they don’t. All of Reagan’s skills and strengths were tied up with the rhetorical presidency. But are journalists equipped to even understand what that is— the crafting of virtue, the search for the responsive chord? I would say no again.

Reagan had mastered the symbolic part of politics. And while most journalists know that a peculiarity of the American president is to simultaneously represent the glory of the nation and head the government (two different jobs in most democracies, including the one in Iraq we are trying to create) which of these two do they regard as real, and as their informational quarry? In which realm do you win Pulitizers and Duponts?

Well, it’s the second: head of government. But if you are looking for Ronald Reagan, in particular—his substance, as a politician—then it’s wiser to start with the layered symbols of American democracy, and his mastery of their language for purposes political. The material was all there in Reagan’s America by Garry Wills (1987), published while the Gipper was still in office. Smart journalists read brilliant books like that. But they cannot easily change the press so that it reflects an enlarged understanding.

Along with “yeah, that’s the rhetoric, but the reality is….” the press has a nearly foundational belief that symbols must be opposed to substance. For understanding Ronald Reagan that is a hopeless formula. His greatest words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” were just words (it was a symbolic request) and yet they shine now as a deed, and reveal for us how an actor-turned-president became president-as-world-actor, making new facts.

Reagan, you see, had great political imagination, something that to this day the press does not see lacking in itself. Lesley’s dim parable is finally about that.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

So what do we think
… of Stahl’s story today, in this week where we glance back at Reagan’s life? Hit the comment button if you have thought.

William Powers in the National Journal (June 11):

There’s a part of him that few in the media have ever understood well, and fewer still knew how to cover, though it drove him to the presidency and was responsible for the immense popularity we witnessed this week….I’m talking about Reagan’s charisma… Political reporters are supposed to care about concrete real-world stuff like polls, war chests, swing states, and, of course, the issues. What political reporters are definitely not supposed to care about, not too much anyway, is the charisma of political figures— the strange personal magnetism that allows certain rare people like Ronald Reagan to capture the public’s imagination and affection….That Reagan was a Hollywood celebrity, and had the charisma that goes with that trade, caused a lot of media people to deeply underestimate him, when he was running for president and afterwards.

Michael Schudson wrote this in an e-mail to PressThink:

“Lesley’s Parable.” Exactly. Used to show that a picture’s worth 10,000 words…. There was such a powerful belief that Reagan’s TV magic bowled over the American public that journalists wrote that — over and over — even when (1981-late 1983) his approval ratings were lower than for any other newly elected president since WW2. The press was convinced for various reasons of Reagan’s popularity, but among them the fact that the press had not initially taken him seriously, they thought he was all surface and no substance and so they were willing and eager to believe that surface and glitz is what won him his popularity. Not so. (1) He wasn’t very popular in those first years and (2) He was making REAL headway in his policies.

R.W. Apple in the New York Times (June 11): “It could be argued that Mr. Reagan’s greatest triumphs came in his role as chief of state rather than as chief of government.”

Charles Krauthammer in Time: “The ungenerous would say he had a great presidency but was not a great man. That follows the tradition of his opponents who throughout his career consistently underestimated him, disdaining him as a good actor, a Being There simpleton who could read scripts written for him by others. In fact, Reagan frustrated his biographers because he was so complex — a free-market egalitarian, an intellectually serious nonintellectual, an ideologue with great tactical flexibility.”

I agree about the “so complex” part. Krauthammer also quotes Edward Kennedy: “… Whether we agreed with him or not, Ronald Reagan was a successful candidate and an effective President above all else because he stood for a set of ideas. He stated them in 1980—and it turned out that he meant them—and he wrote most of them not only into public law but into the national consciousness.”

In contrast there is this from former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder in USA Today (June 6): “Americans are optimistic by nature, and they loved that Reagan believed to his core in the American Dream. If someone accused him of hurting college students by cutting loans, President Reagan could be seen on the nightly news writing a personal check to a struggling student.”

That’s Lesley’s Parable, still working.

James Lileks: “We didn’t hate Reagan; we viewed him with indulgent contempt, since he was so obviously out of his depth. I mean, please: an actor? As president?… He was in a movie with a talking monkey, for heaven’s sake. That was all you really needed to know. ‘Bedtime for Bonzo,’ you’d say with a smirk or a conspicuous rolling of the eyes, and everyone would nod. Idiot. Empty-headed grinning high-haired uberdad. Of course he was popular among the groundlings. It would be laughable if it weren’t so typical— he was just the sort of fool the voters could be trusted to elect.”

David Corn of the Nation wrote this “cheat sheet,” as he calls it, for the worst of the Reagan Years.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 9, 2004 6:57 PM