The Ronald Reagan Infomercial: Fox News' Coverage of the Death of Ronald Reagan.
<1> Early in the morning of July 6th, 2004, Fox News Network showed an exquisitely produced thirty second commercial featuring footage of former President Ronald Reagan's speeches woven together with captions. The speech excerpts showed the fortieth president at his most moralizing (one especially Manichean quote proclaimed, "The forces of good ultimately rally and triumph over evil"), while the caption as a whole ("If a man is to be measured by his contributions, his contributions and their impact on our nation and the world are immeasurable") sought to mark Reagan as the ultimate humanitarian. Yet this segment, rather than being a video tribute or personality profile (either of which were possibilities, as Reagan died less than twenty four hours before), was clearly a commercial, as there was an actual, specific product for sale: Fox News Network's specific ideological construction of the deceased president as the archetypal ruler of their version of a conservative America. This essay then will briefly review a segment of Fox News' coverage of Ronald Reagan's death as broadcast between 1:30 AM and 6 AM on June 6, 2004 in order to highlight how Fox News' entire broadcast can be read as an infomercial, that is, as an extended commercial for a very specific product, the Fox News version of the conservative ideology specifically linked to Ronald Reagan's presidency.
<2> Fox News clearly approached Ronald Reagan's death more as a packaged event than as a breaking news story. While Reagan was certainly not going to live forever (in addition to being 93 years old, his health was in decline since the announcement of his Alzheimer's disease), his death was not publicly foreshadowed or treated like an anticipated event. Rather than presenting whatever information that developed during the course of the day as would be expected in a newscast, Fox News' coverage explicitly operated off if not a script then a set of contingency plans: reporter Trace Gallagher noted that the "first of this year, we went through kind of a walk through of how this thing was going to go," and the commentators repeatedly mentioned reading background material on Reagan's presidency.
<3> Like an infomercial, the coverage, which had fallen into a steady routine by the time of the analyzed segment, followed an established formula, proceeding in hour-long blocks, with key features reoccurring at regular intervals. Each portion of the show was framed by nostalgia-laced video montages of the former president. Every hour or so, the commentators discussed funeral plans and such with their location reporters at the Reagan Library, at the Santa Monica funeral home where Reagan's body was then held, and at the White House. Also, Fox News showed tightly edited video recaps of prime occasions in the deceased president's life (such as his film career and political campaigns) mixed with interviews with an array of guests and analysts. Both the videos and interviews were obstinately designed to provide insight into Reagan's legacy and place in history. However, the panel of "experts" in the analyzed segment was extraordinarily skewed towards a Republican/conservative perspective; the vast majority of analysts were unabashed in their ebullient praise of the fortieth president, and the only experts quoted in the video retrospectives of Reagan's presidencies were George Shultz, Casper Weinberger, and Michael Deaver, all former Cabinet members. The primary purpose of these segments then was to depict the recently deceased Reagan as an exalted sovereign worthy of praise, not just to recap his life and career.
<4> Fox News' coverage also sought to build an identification with their viewers as would a commercial, but Fox employed exclusionary tactics, depicting the true American as de facto subscribing to the conservative ethos and branding the excluded as enemies. One specific way this was accomplished was by painting the eighties conservative movement as universal, as when guest Gary Bauer (a former Reagan aid) generalized that "by 1980, the people, who have seen the failures of many liberal ideas, were ready to try a more conservative approach." Fox News also implied that those who dissented from this conservative movement were less than normal. When reporter Trace Gallagher at the Santa Monica funeral home noted that "many Democrats, many liberals just the same came to pay tribute to this American President" (in a tone which suggested, yes, they're people too), the studio commentator Bob Sellers quipped, "they love him even there, even though the place is called the Social Republic of Santa Monica" due to its high concentration of liberals, thus equating liberalism (albeit in an admittedly "tongue in cheek" manner) with communism. Fox News then saw those who were not avowed conservatives as enemies of the country and acted as if any "American" behavior (such as a show of respect for a deceased president) was considered so out of the ordinary as to be a newsworthy event.
<5> On par with liberals as enemies of the "true America" for both the commentators and the guests on Fox News were the "ruling elite," American intellectuals. Bauer, for instance, felt the greatest issue disrupting the country was the "tremendous division in our country between where many Americans are and where unfortunately the professors in our University campuses, sort of molders of opinion, are. The elites in this country see America as no better than, and maybe even worse than many of the alternatives around the world. Americans see it as quite the opposite." The elites here are not true Americans, as they do not utterly buy into the belief in American exceptionalism, a requirement for citizenship...and this anti-intellectualism is repeated by other personnel on the broadcast, including the House Speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert.
<6> What is particularly interesting here is that in its attempt to align itself as a populist organization, Fox News denied its own status as an elite. Bauer, by claiming intellectuals are the molders of opinion, denies his own former position of privilege as a presidential aid. Hastert similarly denies his own position of privilege as a high-ranking congressman. As an organization, Fox News finesses its own privilege by specifically separating itself from the media in general when, for example, Fox News commentator Rick Folbaum places himself outside the media by claiming "the media just never really got [Ronald Reagan]…and created sort of this caricature"...unlike his own organization, which supposedly depicts only the truth. These denials of authority are mere parrotings of Reagan's own claim of outsider status in spite of his own position, made most visible during the president's first inauguration, when he claimed "government is the problem" immediately after being sworn into the highest governmental office.
<7> Like a standard commercial, the Fox News coverage concentrated on making positive claims about its product, and Ronald Reagan was universally praised. The Fox News Ticker claimed Reagan was "widely considered one of the twentieth century's greatest leaders," and this was echoed by other quoted dignitaries, including President George W. Bush, James Baker, and Jesse Helms…all of which act as celebrity endorsers. Reagan's qualifications were exaggerated, such as when Fox News commentator Kiran Chetry, after a D-Day anniversary reference, claimed "Ronald Reagan…was a World War II vet"…though the president made training films during the war. Reporter William LaJeunesse even claimed God-like status for Reagan, by speculating "It will be interesting as we remember him this week whether or not if he will do in death as he did in life in terms of helping us get back on the road." In short, Fox News sold Reagan as the super product that could do anything, and any possible negative attributes were swept under the rug (the Iran/Contra scandal, for instance, garnered one sentence in a taped segment).
<8> The full-blown selling did not, however, last throughout the morning. When the coverage of Reagan's death was combined with the previously scheduled coverage of the anniversary of D-Day, Fox News' infomercial became increasingly erratic, with analyst Oliver North stating (among other things) that French President Jacques Chirac "would be speaking German if it weren't for the people we honored today." As a result, the slickness of the "infomercial" presentation largely degenerated into propaganda-esque rants. However, it was clear from the coverage focusing on the deceased fortieth president, from the video montages, to the special analysts, that Fox News' task was not to merely report Reagan's death as news but to sell it as a product to the great American news consumer.