One morning in the first week of October, several of Jimmy Carter’s top political advisors picked up their telephones and asked to be connected to prominent reporters and editors around Washington. As each waited for the voice at the other end, rage—genuine or calculated for the occasion—boiled toward the surface. The Carter staffers were fed up with the “free ride” they thought Ronald Reagan was getting from the press corps covering his campaign.

None of the belly-aching accomplished much. In fact, the landslide a month later probably wouldn’t have been reversed had the Carter people themselves been assigned to cover Reagan for the newspapers, networks and newsmagazines. A press plane full of welfare chiselers might not have turned the tide. And even assuming the contest had been as close as everyone expected, the charge was still a little exaggerated. Reagan did not exactly get a “free ride.”

It was more like half-fare. For a candidate whose career and views raised so many questions, Reagan emerged with his hair in place and teeth gleaming for the camera. In that sense, the Carter people have a point. In a couple of years, reporters might start wondering what quantities of Librium somebody slipped them during the fall of 1980.

So how did it happen? There’s no single answer, of course. Reagan’s charm and affability obviously had something to do with it, as well as the fact that despite his repetitious “Speech” he had not yet bored the press in the way Carter did.

But there’s something else that requires consideration. Reporters who cover winning presidential candidates often end up with better jobs for themselves after the election. Many print reporters who followed Carter in 1976—James Wooten of The New York Times, Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe, and Eleanor Randolph, then of The Chicago Tribune, to name a few—all went on to cover the White House. Likewise with television: in 1976 Ed Bradley, Judy Woodruff, and Sam Donaldson covered Carter for their networks, and went on to be White House correspondents.

Did the example of their success make this year’s crop of campaign reporters tempted— consciously or unconsciously—to tilt their coverage in hopes their candidate would win, and they would advance with him? When you study the work of any individual reporter, you don’t find clear favoritism. You can be subconsciously rooting for your man to win whether you’re writing tough stories or puff pieces. In fact, some reporters promoted along with Carter in 1976 had often been critical—Donaldson being the prime example. Yet when you look at the overall pattern of 1980 presidential coverage, you can’t help suspecting that the generally hungrier, not quite-arrived reporters on the challenger’s plane were softer than the already-arrived reporters covering the incumbent. Let’s look at the tenor of 1980 coverage to see if that’s true. If it is, it could say a lot about what to expect from the press in 1984.

When it’s time to write that big Sunday piece, when Meet the Press is lining up panelists, who gets the nod? The reporter who covered the winner, or the loser?

The softness of the Reagan coverage isn’t so obvious at first glance. Reagan’s bloopers, for instance, were reported on. Who could ignore his comments about air pollution being “substantially controlled” when his plane was being detoured around smog-bound Los Angeles? But the Reagan gaffes rarely reverberated through the press for more than a day or two, far shorter than the furor caused, for instance, by Gerald Ford’s inadvertent (and understandable) comment about Poland during the 1976 debate.

Part of that laxity resulted from Reagan’s strange chemistry with a surprisingly indulgent American public; his foot-in-mouth disease was seen as almost endearing because it was so reassuringly human and homey. More important, Reagan’s blunders in the fall campaign were always overshadowed by the issue of Carter’s “meanness.” When Reagan made the mistake of charging that Carter opened his campaign in the home of the Ku Klux Klan, it hurt him only until Carter retaliated by indirectly calling him a racist during a speech to a black audience in Atlanta. Shortly thereafter Carter got his come-uppance during a televised press conference, when four questions focused on his “mean” campaign tactics.

To a point the gripe was legitimate; Carter was trading on his reputation as a Christian gentleman in order to get in a little head-slapping at the line of scrimmage. At least two of the reporters who asked “meanness” questions now admit they had been waiting for just such an opportunity to show the public a side of the President the press had known about for a long time.

But the blood-letting at that September press conference did not satisfy the press corps’ appetite for chewing on the “meanness” issues. Even Sam Donaldson of ABC News, the toughest network correspondent on the air and despised by most Carter aides, concedes the sensitivity to Carter’s rhetoric went too far as the fall progressed. “At one point I told them that if we’re going to say he’s mean just because he’s criticizing his opponent, how the hell can he campaign?” Coming from one of the reporters who raised the “meanness” issue in the first place, that is significant.

The Mean-To Lean-To

Carter made a mistake in unloading his warmonger charge in person. He should have let his surrogates and advertising take care of it as Lyndon Johnson did in 1964. Instead he relied on a kind of innuendo reporters found useful in their effort to alert the public to what they considered to be his mean streak.

But if the President was going to take his lumps for that it was only fair that Reagan feel the heat from the press for some of his charges, even if they were made with a disarming aw-shucks grin. When Carter said in Chicago on October 6th that Reagan would polarize the country (“rural from urban; Christian from Jew,” etc.), it created a storm of protest from reporters, not to mention editorialists, who considered it a personal attack that went beyond the permissible bounds of campaign rhetoric. Yet that same week, Reagan accused Carter of being a participant in a “serious cover-up” of an unauthorized disclosure of national security information. He suggested the President was the “greatest deceiver ever to occupy the White House,” which was not only an absurd statement, but newsworthy too. Does Reagan believe Carter is more guilty of deception than Nixon? That might have been an important question to ask.

There is little evidence anyone did. These comments were buried in the bottom of stories or not reported at all, suggesting that the press considered it somehow worse to call an opponent divisive than to label him a liar.

Reagan’s personal attacks were seen as simply conventional campaign rhetoric. On the last weekend before the election, he unleashed a brutal barrage of insults, including one which suggested the reason Carter was “so obsessed with poverty is because he never had any as a child.” The New York Times ran the comment in the 11th paragraph of an inside story. On page one that Sunday was a report about a middle level Justice Department bureaucrat who wrote a dubious report charging Carter and Attorney General Civiletti with slowness in the trumped up Billy Carter case. The Washington Post, meanwhile, was busy running a four-part series detailing Administration miscues on the hostage issue.

Of the major papers, only The Wall Street Journal really went after Reagan during the last week of the campaign. The October 28th account of Richard Allen’s questionable lobbying activities set up a situation in which the press seemed only too happy to be fooled by the Reagan people. Allen resigned from the campaign with no promise he wouldn’t serve as national security advisor in a new administration. The press, knowing full well he would return to the fold if Reagan won, felt (wrongly) that it could not pursue the story in the remaining days before November 4th.

Defenders of the Reagan press coverage like to point out that the candidate did not glide through the fall campaign entirely unharmed. They note that the so-called “war and peace” issue hurt Reagan enough to force him to change his mind and debate Carter one-on-one. But that view ignores the crucial question of who raised the issue. The answer is, Carter did—with very little help from the press (a piece by Martin Schram in the October 19 Washington Post, “War and Peace: An Issue Reagan Created,” is one of only a few exceptions).

In a campaign, the origin of an issue is all important. Because the war-risk charges were raised by Carter personally they were discredited as “politically motivated” and rarely raised independently by reporters. Compare that to the “meanness” issue, which Reagan himself never really had to fuel. “I told our people, stay out of it—the press is doing the job for us,” says Reagan senior media advisor Robert Gray.

The Carter strategists could not count on the same thing, and that’s what made them angry enough to pick up their phones that October morning and complain to reporters. The best example the Carter complainers had was an interview Walter Mears of the Associated Press conducted with Reagan on the last day of September, in which the candidate said the threat of an arms race should be used as a “card” in negotiations with the Soviet Union. This was not out of character for Reagan; he had hinted as much before in an interview with Lou Cannon of The Washington Post. Nonetheless, the reporters assigned to his campaign should have viewed the statement just as the White House press corps viewed Carter’s “mean” comments in Atlanta: as an opportunity to draw out the candidate on this essential issue.

It didn’t work that way. The networks ignored the “trump card” story and most papers buried it. The interview was forgotten until Carter pointed to it as a departure from 30 years of presidential support for arms control. But once he did that, the issue became political and the substance went largely unexplored by reporters. In assuming that the Reagan and war issue was just a part of the campaign and nothing more, the press decided on a passive role—quote the charges to Reagan and get a response. That is very different from deciding the war and peace issue was important to them as reporters—which they did with Carter’s “meanness.”

The same passiveness characterized many reporters’ reactions to Reagan’s comments last spring about using a blockade of Cuba as a contingency response to the invasion of Afghanistan; his belief, expressed in October, that the U.S. should have considered seizing North Korean ships after the taking of the U.S.S. Pueblo; and his view that U.S. planes should perhaps be stationed in Sinai airbases. Weren’t the implications of some of these ideas worth exploring in more depth? Should the United States deliberately prompt drastic escalation of the arms race? Should we be prepared to go to war with the Soviets over Afghanistan or with the Koreans over the Pueblo? Should we really place American planes and the personnel to fly and service them in the middle of the Middle East tinderbox? Only the statement on a potential blockade of Cuba got any attention from the press at all.

That’s Incredible

A number of reporters on the Reagan plane point to the candidate’s inaccessibility as an explanation of their failure to ask tough questions. After a series of gaffes around Labor Day, Reagan was virtually shut off from reporters. Press secretary Lyn Nofziger would usually wave the press away after a brief question or two on the airport tarmac. The press duly noted this development but never made much of a stink about it. Reporters complained among themselves but essentially suffered silently. If they had done their complaining in their stories, they might have been able to embarrass Reagan into becoming accessible.

That contrasts sharply with the attitude of the White House press corps when faced with a similar problem. Last spring, the press let the public know all about the charade that came to be called the “Rose Garden strategy.” The press used the phrase often, even when the President’s political foes made no mention of it.

By fall, Reagan was using the traveling road show in the same way Carter had once used incumbency—as a shield. But no comparable effort was undertaken to inform voters repeatedly—of what was happening. How often did you hear network correspondents saying “Once again today Governor Reagan employed his ‘tarmac strategy’ and refused to answer all but one question from the press”? At least when the incumbent played that game there were other administration-record stories to pursue. When the challenger did it, the effect was much worse, because all reporters could then do was regurgitate what the Reagan campaign had fed them.

Unfortunately, on those occasions when questions for Reagan were allowed, the results suggested that even if the press had gained more access, it might not have mattered much. Toward the end of the campaign several reporters were granted brief interviews with the candidate. If their stories are any indication, many seemed to ask only questions about the horse-race, or throw gopher balls. A larger number of the accounts of the interviews led with the hardly startling conclusion that Reagan admitted Carter had made him the main campaign issue. Reporters thought that was a big story, but it actually just showed them falling once again for the classic Reagan strategy of playing the underdog.

“When they got the chance, most reporters didn’t ask Reagan much more than reaction questions,” says Walt Rogers of AP Radio, who shifted back and forth between the two campaigns. “They’d say, ‘What do you think of this, Governor,’ rather than ‘How do you square this with that.’ Carter met with a lot of tough, pushing reporters. Reagan didn’t.” Eleanor Randolph (now of The Los Angeles Times) was more blunt: “I was astounded at how they soft talked him.”

Reporters wrote stories on Reagan’s dramatic shifts on labor issues, the Chrysler bailout and aid to New York City, but only rarely did they present them in the striking terms that drive the message home to voters. The paucity of tough pieces is reflected in the fact that, asked to cite an example of toughness, many reporters recall the same one—a story by Bill Plante of CBS in which he dramatized Reagan’s contradictions by juxtaposing different statements and drawing Xs across the face of the old Reagan.

There were other examples, but appreciation of Reagan’s campaigning abilities took up far more space than skepticism about what he was saying. David Nyhan finished a wrap-up in The Boston Globe sounding like the host of That’s Incredible!:

“The Reagan saga describes an incredible career. And to see a 69-year-old man performing the role of a lifetime, and on the brink of incredible success, is to witness a politician with some remarkable talents.”

True, there was a story to be written about the strange nature of Reagan’s appeal. What made the Gipper so popular? Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, who began covering him in 1966 and knows more about him than any other reporter, did a solid job in the early months of the year explaining the man, and that gave the Post the edge in early coverage. He was also the first journalist to report on Reagan’s hearing loss, and on his dubious use of statistics.

But overall, the pace Cannon set for other print reporters and the networks and newsmagazines which took their lead from him was not especially rigorous. By fall he was treading only lightly on Reagan, occasionally criticizing the progress of the campaign but rarely if ever reflecting badly on the candidate himself. Reagan’s flip-flops, for instance, were mentioned mainly to prove he was a practical politician. Every implied criticism was followed by some kind of rationalization or other sign of more-than-grudging respect.

Cannon’s fall coverage was complete in its account of what happened on any particular day, which is important but already done by the wire services. It was often sparse in its analysis of how the candidate had changed or distorted his record, which Cannon, as dean of the Reagan reporters, knew better than anyone else.

Even for a hard-working and sincere journalist, 15 years of covering one politician can have a strange effect. In the fall, Cannon wrote as if he believed readers already knew almost as much about Ronald Reagan as he did, and thus there was no point in dredging up what he had reported earlier. “People knew where he (Reagan) was on farm subsidies,” Cannon says in explaining why his story on Reagan’s farm speech, unlike The New York Times account, included no reference to the contradiction between Reagan’s support for subsidies and his free market ideology.

The “we’ve-had-it-before” syndrome went far beyond Cannon. Should the press repeat important coverage? As far as Reagan’s record as governor was concerned, many reporters and editors said no. If the majority of Americans don’t start paying attention to politics until after the World Series, well, that’s their problem. If voters elected Ronald Reagan believing that he had cut California taxes (he sponsored the largest tax increase in the state’s history), it was their fault for not paying more attention when the “Reagan record” piece ran in May or June.

Which should the press do: get the facts out at some point, thereby fulfilling an obligation? Or make a determined and consistent effort to inform and educate the public about a man and his record? Collectively, the press seemed to have chosen the former, the evidence being that most voters still do not know that the tax cutter and budget slasher they elected was neither when he governed California.

Institutionally, the press is set up to crawl all over the federal government and report on the incumbent’s record every day. The Reagan record, on the other hand, was defined in the fall only by the extent to which the two candidates talked about it. There were some notable exceptions, but once again the press played a largely passive role, letting Carter handle—and thus discredit—the charges of distortion. If editors had chosen to take even one-twentieth of the money devoted to covering the horse race and used it to send an investigative team to California, the natural imbalance might have been corrected a bit. And maybe the country could stop learning about its presidents the hard way.

Leave It to Deaver

That’s the problem writ large. But what about the reporters themselves? The example of their predecessors’ career advancement must have weighed on them in some way. Even though getting a job as daily stenographic grind at the White House has lost some of its cachet in recent years, many print reporters covering Reagan must have known their careers might well get a boost because of their familiarity with the incoming Reaganites. And for the network reporters covering Reagan, the job of White House correspondent with its guarantee of air time seemed a reachable goal. As it turned out, this year only Bill Plante of CBS will make it that far, but while the campaign was progressing, the example of 1976 could not have been lost on the others.

How does the logic of all this work itself out in the mind of a reporter?

Let’s pretend it’s October and you’re covering the Reagan campaign. Leadership ’80, the Reagan plane, is ascending out of some blurrily recalled Midwestern airport. Nancy Reagan strikes her best Don Weber pose and bowls an orange all the way down the aisle, her Adolfo suit creasing perfectly in the process. It hits the exit door, and the staff cheers. These people sound like winners.

Did you ever hear a network correspondent say, “Once again today Reagan employed his ‘Tarmac Strategy’ and refused to answer all but one question from the press”?

Mike Deaver wanders over. He’s Ronald Reagan’s right hand, the aide who wakes up the candidate in the morning and tucks him in at night. He asks if you want to play a little bridge later on. Like most of these p.r. types, Deaver’s a good guy, notwithstanding that business about his firm representing the Taiwanese. More important, he’s a good guy to get to know. A good source.

Right now that doesn’t mean much—the election’s only around the corner and you’ve got enough problems just filing long daily stories covering what Reagan says. Besides, Deaver’s not about to give you an exclusive anyway. A private poll or two perhaps—Richard Wirthlin’s figures showing Reagan ahead are getting well circulated. But the campaign’s past the point where the planted leak helps the cause much. At this late stage, with everyone playing it so close to the vest, the source thing isn’t so important.

But as you peer over Deaver’s dome at the landscape disappearing in the distance, you say yes to the bridge offer without pause. Forget the fact that you despise the game and only know it because your grandmother once insisted it was a good way to make friends. This is one of those times when grandma had a point. Common sense would tell any reporter that he should get acquainted with Deaver as well as he can, if not for now then for later.

Later, of course, means if Reagan wins. If he loses—let’s face it—Deaver’s a nothing, back on the slow boat to Taipei. You may genuinely have enjoyed those long nights blabbing away with him in the hotel bar but they won’t mean much beyond pleasant campaign memories. On the other hand, if Reagan knocks off Carter, Deaver is palace guard—a very key source. So is that man who just walked up the aisle to the front compartment: Ed Meese. You know him pretty well too. Come to think of it, you’ve been on this beat so long even the governor himself is no stranger. It’s been several months since you really sat down with him but Lyn Nofziger’s people have lined up a brief interview for you late next week. Plus another… after the election.

So Reagan wins, and now you’re back in Washington, or set to move there. You stride into the Washington bureau of your paper just as an exasperated reporter slams down his phone and yells at the ceiling— true story—”Who here knows any Republicans?” As it happens, you do. When it’s time to write the big Sunday piece, when Meet the Press is lining up panelists, when there’s a shakeup in the bureau—take a guess at who gets the nod. It isn’t your colleague who trooped through the New Hampshire snow in 1976 with the “peanut brigade” and now busies himself writing Carter post-mortems. You do. You know Mike Deaver.

It’s not quite as simple as that. Your sources from the campaign only take you so far, and reporters who covered Carter are not exactly washed up. They are established, and if good, will bounce back quickly. In that sense the White House press corps had a lot less to lose covering this campaign than you and the others on the Reagan plane had to win. Which may help explain something about the tone of this year’s coverage, not to mention our national habit of creating and idolizing presidential candidates, then smashing them after they take office.

The cycle may well continue. In four years, ambitious young reporters covering the next presidential campaign probably won’t remember whether Howell Raines of The New York Times, Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, or Bill Plante of CBS were tough or soft or neither or both during the 1980 campaign—and it probably won’t matter to them. What they will remember, and what will matter, is what happened to these reporters and others after the Reagan campaign ended: all will now move from lesser assignments to covering the President. Cannon, like Wooten in 1976, will get to write a book about his candidate. Whatever the true nature of their coverage, the lesson perceived by other reporters might be the wrong one. It has happened before.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.