The US president manipulates the press as the press turn to trivia

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, May 16 1988

Don Regan had a whole lot of fun in his acerbic new memoir, poking Nancy Reagan in the eye with his shock horoscope stories about star-gazing in the White House, but the President’s former chief of staff was trying to land an altogether heavier blow and one which missed its target in all the hullabaloo.

Regan, who is by far the most authoritative insider to tell tales on Ronald Reagan’s White House, reserves his most damning language in his book, For The Record, for an entirely different issue – the relationship between the President and the press.

Put simply, Regan accuses his old boss of being a media puppet. “I was shocked by the extent to which the press determined the everyday activities, and even the philosophical tenor, of the Presidency,” he writes and, in a particularly insulting passage, he describes the President as “a sort of supreme anchorman whose public persona was the most important element of the presidency.”

But this is not just a matter of throwing insults at President Pinocchio. Regan is pushing at something much more important, which he finally unveils in the book’s most aggressive passage: “It is my belief that the tendency to process the activities of the government into entertainment constitutes a danger to the democratic process and to the republic itself.

“The symbiosis between the press and the Reagan administration carried a destructive American tendency to trivialise the nation’s business very close to the pathological. Both partners share in the responsibility, but the active partner indubitably was the White House. This was the most damning failure of an administration that was otherwise a great force for good in America and in the world.”

Strong stuff.  And on the face of it, unarguable. The only problem with it is that – as with much of what Don Regan writes – it has a whiff of malice about it, particularly the idea that it is the White House rather than the press which is the active partner in this trivialisation. The evidence is that this undoubtedly tacky marriage of convenience is a modern one in which both partners play an equally active role. Consider the case of CBS Television.

For years, CBS has been the jewel in the crown of American TV news. Year after year, it has topped the ratings, but more important, its bulletins have been the acknowledged broadcasts of record, the voice of authority in US news. It has boasted the talents of legendary newsmen like Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite and amidst the razzmattaz of the American airwaves, it has enjoyed a special reputation for honesty and integrity. But not any more.

As one of their senior journalists, Andy Rooney, recently put it: “CBS, which used to stand for Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything. They’re just corporate initials.” The company’s decline has been traced in a new book, Who Killed CBS?, by the television correspondent of the New York Times, Peter Boyer. It is the missing part of Don Regan’s complaint.

Boyer traces a classic struggle between journalism and commercialism in which the traditional idea of news as information is subverted by the contemporary and much more profitable idea of news as entertainment. It is the same theme which runs in fictional form through the film Broadcast News, whose script is heavily based on CBS folklore.

In the studios of CBS in New York, the struggle saw a professional journalist replaced as anchor of the morning news show by a former Miss America who had a wunnerful smile, a million-dollar salary and no idea what she was doing. Sample dialogue: Miss America – “I want to interview that Ghandi woman.” Producer – “But she’s dead.” Miss America – “Oh, well, someone like her.” It saw the new evening anchorman, Dan Rather, dressed in a sweater instead of a suit, coming on all friendly and folksy and introducing stories about singing sheep. It saw the old subtlety and analytic strength of CBS usurped by eye-catching pictures and soothing commentary.

In the words of CBS veteran Bill Moyers:”The line between entertainment and news was steadily blurred. Our centre of gravity shifted from the standards and practices of the news business to show business. Pretty soon, tax policy had to compete with stories about three-legged sheep, and the three-legged sheep won.”

This was not happening, as Don Regan appears to want us to believe, because the White House ordered it. This was happening because inflation was eating away at the advertising budgets of big companies while cable TV and video ate away at the audiences. The result was a ratings war in which TV stations lowered their standards in the desperate hope they they might raise their viewing figures and protect their advertising income.

But there was worse to come. As CBS struggled with its identity, its shares were hunted by corporate raiders including the infamous Ivan Boesky; the board panicked and took refuge with an apparently friendly financier named Larry Tisch who bought 25% of their shares at a bargain price. Tisch, however, was merely a businessman who rapidly set about completing the conquest of journalism by commercialism.

He slashed their budgets and sacked hundreds of staff. By the time he had finished, CBS bureaux across the country and around the world had been cut back and closed. It became commonplace for big stories to take place without anyone from CBS to cover them. Now serious news coverage was not simply out of favour, it was out of reach.

Last month, CBS reaped what it had sewn. For the first time in its history, it sank to third place in the network ratings behind its two formerly helpless rivals, NBC and ABC. A traumatic moment. The Washington Post had some salt for the wound. “Getting whupped by NBC was one humiliation, but getting trounced by ABC was mortifying,” it observed. The reason for CBS’s failure is revealing.

It is not so much that CBS has abandoned serious journalism. As the Washington Post implies, and as any American TV viewer knows, its competitors did that long ago.  CBS is simply not yet very good at being bad. They have not yet sunk quite low enough to beat NBC and ABC at the trivia game. Doubtless they will. Don Regan may be wrong about who started all this, but he is surely right to be alarmed by it.

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It has been a tense time in California. Every amateur soothsayer in the state knows that if you stand on your head with the wind behind you, you can interpret a verse of Nostradamus’ sixteenth century prophecies to indicate that this is the month when California succumbs to a massive earthquake. Among those who have been predicting the end of California as we know it is Joan Quigley, now better known as Astrologer to the Court of Queen Nancy, who happens to live there. Joan confidently pin-pointed May 5 as the day of the big disaster, which appears to be the reason why she was safely tucked away in Europe when her role in the White House was revealed last week. But now she is back, doubtless surprised to find her home still in one piece, and rambling on about how Nostradamus was quite right really, if only he had taken into account planets like Uranus which have been discovered since his time.

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He may have abandoned his career in counter-terrorism and retired from the Marines, but Oliver North is still fighting. Last month, Senator John Kerry, who is investigating links between the colonel and Central American drug dealers, decided to subpoena 3,000 pages of the disgraced aide’s note books. The senator asked US Capitol police to serve the subpoena. The police went to North’s house, but security guards turned them away. They tried to contact North’s lawyer, but he refused to take their calls. They posted the subpoena to North’s home in a plain brown envelope, but he spotted it and sent it back unopened. For ten days, North played hide and seek with them. Eventually, the police set up a round-the-clock covert surveillance of North’s home. Last week, they spotted him driving out of his gate and followed him at a discreet distance in an unmarked car. North, unaware of the danger, stopped at traffic lights and police sergeant Tom Moore hopped out of his car, crouched down and scuttled along the queue of cars, rising finally to slap the subpoena through the open car window onto North’s chest. “Okay,” said North. “You got me.” In fact, they hadn’t. North’s lawyer is now contending that the subpoena violates North’s constitutional right against self-incrimination. And the police have put in a $2,000 bill for their overtime.

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A man walked into a cinema in New York last week, sat down and started to watch the film. He had a cough. He had some cough drops in his pocket, so he took one out and put it in his mouth. The usherette came. She said: “You can’t eat food in here unless you bought it here.” He said: “But I have a cough. It’s a cough drop. You don’t sell cough drops.” She insisted he take it out. He refused. She called the police. They came into the cinema and squeezed down the row to where the man was sitting, grabbed hold of him and arrested him. He never saw the end of the film. That’s life in America.