Television - The great communicator on the world stage



President Ronald Reagan became known as the Great Communicator, a distinction that earned him both plaudits and derogation. Reagan's speeches moved, inspired, and reassured millions of people. Critics, however, insisted that Reagan was an acting president, a performer who brought to the White House the theatrical skills that he had learned in Hollywood and who followed scripts that he had done little, if anything, to create. Reagan, like most contemporary presidents, usually read texts that speechwriters had prepared. Yet sometimes the words and often the ideas were his own. Opponents deplored the troubling oversimplifications in his folksy anecdotes and uplifting stories. Yet many viewers found an authenticity that came from the president's sincerity and conviction. Reagan was extraordinarily successful at using the White House and, indeed, the world, as a stage—or perhaps, more accurately, a studio—as he exploited the medium of television to build public support for his presidency.

White House aides planned Reagan's public appearances with meticulous care as television events. They chose the best camera angles, chalked in toe marks so the president would know exactly where to stand, and positioned reporters to minimize opportunities for unwanted questions. The preparations reflected what the president's assistants called the "line of the day," the story that they wanted to lead the news in order to advance their legislative or international agenda. What viewers saw, Reagan's communications experts thought, was more important than what they heard. When the CBS Evening News ran a critical story in October 1984 about Reagan's use of soothing images to obscure unpopular policies, reporter Lesley Stahl was astounded when White House aide Richard Darman telephoned to congratulate her. "You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you?" Darman said. "When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you."

Televised images mattered so much to the Reagan White House partly because of changes in TV news. By the early 1980s about two-thirds of the American public said that television was their primary source of news. Viewers could watch a growing number of news programs, including morning and midday shows as well as the traditional evening broadcasts. During prime time there were popular magazine programs, such as 60 Minutes (CBS) and 20/20 (ABC), as well as brief updates called "newsbreaks." And at the end of the day, there was Nightline. Cable TV, which reached 20 percent of television households in 1981 and more than twice that proportion in 1985, offered more choices. On 1 June 1980 the Cable News Network became the first 24-hour news channel. Greater competition and corporate pressures made network news executives more concerned with ratings and willing to try to increase them by altering the balance between information and entertainment. At CBS, for example, when ratings plunged after Cronkite's retirement, the news director urged the new anchor, Dan Rather, to dress in a sweater to appear friendly and informal and insisted on more "feel-good" features. CBS producers dropped a report about State Department reaction to Israeli bombing in Lebanon to open a slot on the evening news of 30 November 1982 for a story about singing sheep. On all the networks, lighter features, striking visuals, and ten-second sound bites increasingly became ways to attract and hold viewers who had more choices, remote controls, and seemingly shorter attention spans. The communications experts in the White House exploited these trends, packaging presidential appearances to fit the changes in TV news.

Reagan's international trips produced many dramatic and memorable television scenes. The advance planners created public occasions, often in striking surroundings, where the president would be in the spotlight. For example, on the rocky coast of Normandy, Reagan gave a magnificent speech in which he commemorated the fortieth anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 1984 by saluting "the boys of Pointe du Hoc … the champions who helped free a continent … the heroes who helped end a war." White House aide Michael Deaver made sure that the French scheduled Reagan's address so it would air live during the network morning news programs. In another stirring scene, Reagan expressed his fervent anti-communism and his commitment to freedom when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on 12 June 1987 and cried, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Other trips produced less exalted, but nonetheless effective events. During a trip to South Korea in November 1983, Reagan attended an outdoor service at a chapel within sight of the North Korean border. One military police officer explained that a nearby armored personnel carrier was there for "backdrop." In one notorious case, advance planning failed. Presidential assistants did not learn that SS troops were buried at Bitburg cemetery in West Germany before the White House announced Reagan's visit. The president refused to change his plans, but he also went to Bergen-Belsen, the site of a Nazi concentration camp, where he gave one of his most moving addresses.

Reagan's summits with Mikhail Gorbachev were international media events with considerable symbolic significance. At their first meeting in Geneva in November 1985, Reagan said that he recognized from Gorbachev's smile that he was dealing with a different kind of Soviet leader. Televised images of their close and friendly relations symbolized the international changes that were occurring as the Cold War began to wane. At their summit in Washington, D.C., in December 1987, the most important substantive achievement was the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. But what mattered as well was what the news media called "Gorby fever," which the Soviet leader stoked by stopping his limousine and plunging into welcoming crowds in downtown Washington. When Reagan reciprocated by traveling to Moscow in May 1988, he followed a schedule that was the result of elaborate planning, including the use of polling and focus groups to test the themes of his speeches. Cameras followed Reagan and Gorbachev as they strolled through Red Square answering questions that appeared to be spontaneous, but some of which had been planted. When a reporter asked about the "evil empire," as Reagan had described the Soviet Union in a famous speech in March 1983, the president replied, that was "another time, another era." The televised scenes beginning in late 1989 of revolutions in Eastern Europe and the opening of the Berlin Wall confirmed Reagan's pronouncement.



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