[This Commentary originally appeared in the January 4, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
(We interrupt our regularly scheduled Commentary Coming of Age in the ‘80s: Part I to bring you this special reaction to Time Magazine’s declaration that Mikhail Gorbachev is the “Man of the Decade.” Portion of this piece will be neatly mailed to the “Letters-to-the-Editor” section of Time. We’ll keep you posted.)
The fourth estate has a very special role in any free society. Unattached to any governing body, it plays a vital part in the system of checks and balances between the three branches of government. Because of the blurry line separating the news media from entertainment, reporters enjoy the same poetic license of artists. This creativity allows them to report in a colorful – and somewhat biased – manner.
While we all complain about yellow journalism, no one denies anyone’s right to free speech. We hope the journalist possesses the responsibility to report the news fairly, yet we praise the writer or producer who can document contemporary affairs in a grand literary style. Rarely do we find individuals or institutions able to master both functions simultaneously. Lamentably, the mass audience appears to respond more favorably to a good story rather than to the true account.
The American media, though, quite capably handles current events. It often pioneers the historic milestones by which we gauge our existence. Maybe because it generates so many different easy-to-remember, easy-to-swallow labels, we remember the few of them which endure through the years. Even when the correspondent does not actually invent the phrase, the tone of the report can encourage that phrase to captivate our collective imagination.
“The Iron Curtain,” “the Cold War,” “The Space Age,” “The Me Generation,” “Baby Boomer,” “Yuppie” are but a few of the icons emblazoned by the press in the latter half of the twentieth century. Certainly these expressions will survive into other epochs as quick capsule summaries of our times. Clearly, the media has successfully created a connotation surrounding the idioms. If you employ any of these clichés, almost everyone would know exactly what you mean.
Yet, by its very definition, the media cannot effectively report news as history. Whereas the news must convey all that happens, from matters of import to background noise, the historian wades through the news, artfully pruning the suckers from the main branches.
More so, the demands of the media industry lead to different results than do the axioms followed by the historian’s academy. The news is current, history lasts forever. We collect history in bound volumes, but use yesterday’s news to wrap fish.
Finally, the consumer of news – the mass audience – demands variety and the unusual. Like any successful business, the media caters to its clientele by reporting uncommon events or creatively adding new perspectives to the mundane. History, however, must conform to the strict rigors of scholarly research.
The purest may argue a historian – by leaving out the underlying babble, by rewriting the news as history and by subjecting himself only to the scrutiny of a partial intelligentsia – can easily control history in an Orwellian fashion. In doing so, though, the purest evades the more fundamental argument: the media obeys a construct which undeniably inhibits its ability to write history.
The historical process unfortunately may produce a warped view of history, but the demands of journalism nearly always will lead to an inappropriate sense of history. Time – as in “years passing,” not the magazine – provides the most favorable perspective for any historical analysis.
Nonetheless, while it may be premature to identify anyone as the “Man of the Decade,” Ronald Reagan is best postured for such an honor. It was his heroic (because of its unlikelihood and his diligence) victory in 1980 which radically altered the direction of America and, given the preeminence of our nation, the world.
President Reagan took the reins of an emotionally depressed country and retired to an America more confident than ever. His economic policies, though only half implemented (he never did reduce or even slow spending) spurred on a very vital domestic economy. His unrelenting position against Soviet expansionism may have been responsible for Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies and the freeing of Eastern Europe.
Without doubt one man could not have done everything by himself (especially one noted for a management style which relied on delegation), but one man embodied all these events. Ronald Reagan – The Great Communicator – successfully captivated a hungry America and forged a new beginning for his country and the world.
Last Week #40: A Christmas Letter (originally published December 21, 1989)
Next Week #42: Terror at the School Bus Stop – A True Life Story (Part I) (originally published January 11, 1990)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]