Sunday, June 06, 2004

Updated June 6, 2004, 7:35 pm; Revised 10:40 pm On the Left with the Chicago Tribune—not so fair and not so balanced; Jon Margolis’ “Destroying a President's Legacy. ”

In its lead editorial today, the Chicago Tribune states, “Today, of course, the American economy is the largest and one of the most dynamic on earth, America is the world’s only superpower and the Soviet Union is gone. The story of how we got from there to here is a long and complicated one, but no single person played a greater role in it than Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday.“

On the front page, the Chicago Tribune starts a piece by Vincent Schodolski that continues on three inside pages and is headlined, “Reagan dies, conservative icon from humble roots helped end Cold War, change faces of politics.” That is sort of right. Reagan did die yesterday and he did help change the face of politics. But the part about “helping to end the cold war,” is ominous for what it tells us how the Tribune is going to cover the life and death of Reagan. The paper is going to bury him, not praise him.

Yes, buried on p.18 of Section 1 of the Tribune is the assessment of the former British Prime Minister, ally and close friend of President Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher: “Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty, and he did it without a shot being fired.” The reader of the Chicago Tribune is left with the implication that yes, that is the view of crazy Margaret, but that is not the way it really happened.

So, I ask, who else does the Tribune have in mind as helping to end the Cold War? Carter? Ford? Nixon? Johnson? JFK? Eisenhower? Truman?

Well, I like Ike, but I don’t think so. Along with George Kennan, I suppose one could point to the Containment Policy of Ike and even Truman, but Containment did not win the Cold War. Reagan had three primary objectives when he became President: strengthen the military defense and capability of America, lower the extreme rates of inflation that occurred during the Carter years and restore economic growth; and reduce the role of government [de-regulation, lower federal income tax rates and lower federal government spending]. To the extent they were thought to be inconsistent [and I would argue they were not], Reagan clearly gave priority to the first item listed. Further, all three objectives were met, except for reductions in government spending.

Moreover, by pursuing SDI and raising America’s military capabilities, President Reagan understood that those efforts would present a strong economic, as well as military, challenge to the Soviet Union. Indeed, Reagan’s unwillingness to cease development of SDI initially brought the disarmament talks to a standstill. Gorbachev, et al knew what President Reagan knew: The inefficient and corruption ridden Soviet Union communist system would not be able to provide the economic horsepower to allow the Soviet military to keep up with America’s military advances. However, the Soviet Union tried, with that effort resulting in the fall of the Soviet Union- as the Soviet economic system was unable to produce either guns or butter with any level of competence.

So, the Containment policies of Ike, JFK and LBJ; the détente of Nixon/Kissinger and the mixture of containment and bewilderment by Carter/Zbig and the rest should not be given credit for helping to win the Cold War. If anything, those folks, over time, tended to defer the day of reckoning for the Soviet Union, rather than bring about its downfall. It was Reagan’s policies that eventually won the day, causing Gorbachev to, ”tear down that Wall,” and the Soviet Union to crumble.

However, the erroneous headline is not the worst of it. Schodolski’s article is a reasonably balanced, biographical piece that covers most of the items that one would expect in the reporting of a great President’s death. No, for the hatchet job, the Tribune turns to Jon Margolis, unfortunately brought out of and back from retirement, at least as a Chicago Tribune reporter, to report on President Reagan’s Legacy, in a Page 1 piece, which continues to p. 16 of Section 1.

The Margolis hit job, headlined, “Reagan revolution stronger now than during Presidency,” is worse than the headline suggests. Margolis tells us, without any sourcing, (1) a majority of Americans are not Reaganite conservatives [are they Clintonite liberals?], (2) “Reagan won majorities, Reaganism never did,” and (3) “Despite Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric, the regulated welfare state was as vibrant when he ended his presidency as when he began it.” This is the usual rhetoric of the liberal mainstream media: Reagan's policies were no good and had no positive impact; Reagan did as well as he did simply because he was a charmer.

Margolis tells us, “Reagan was able to make ideas respectable by the sheer force of his personality, a personality with policy consequences.“ Boy, sure could have fooled Milton Friedman, George Will, Bill Kristol, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Martin Feldstein, just to name a few columnists, economists and policy makers who would disagree with Margolis. Cutting marginal rates of taxation, giving people a greater incentive to work and to return to work, assessing and balancing benefits and costs of proposed regulatory policies before adopting them, promoting freedom and democracy and adopting a stable monetary policy are just a few of President Reagan’s ideas that might be viewed as respectable on the merits, even without Reagan’s winning personality.

On Reagan’s primary role in winning the Cold War, Margolis dismisses that notion easily, but without any sourcing- telling us that Reagan’s excessively worshipful followers have exaggerated his part in winning the Cold War. Who are those worshipful followers? Margolis doesn’t really say. Who played a larger part than President Reagan, or even a large part, in winning the Cold War? Margolis doesn’t say. For that, we will have to wait for another Margolis column. Oops, I don’t think the Tribune would put a guest column on Page 1, would they? A guest essay? No, can’t be that either. A news story? No, too much obvious slant and bias for that, right? So, what is it? Got me. Ask Ann Marie Lipinski, she is the Tribune editor, right? Or perhaps ask James O'Shea, the Tribune's Managing Editor.

But, Margolis does tell us that President Reagan’s insistence on negotiating from a position of military strength “surely played a role,” in that victory.
Yup, Margolis is being consistent with the Tribune party line: Conservative icon “helped end Cold War.”

Probably the most egregious display of bias is Margolis’ reference to President Reagan’s failures as including the supply side economics theory that underlay his tax cuts, which Margolis points out were followed by the recession of 1982. Margolis apparently is arguing that the Reagan tax cuts caused the recession of 1982.

Someone who had taken the time to learn a little economics might know that when the Federal Reserve System lowers the rate of monetary growth to try to reduce the rate of inflation, which is what happened in the early 80s, that policy is usually followed, with a lag, by a reduction in both inflation and the rate of growth or the level of real GDP, i.e., gross domestic product. The Reagan “across the board cuts in marginal income tax rates,” lifted us out of the recession and laid the groundwork for one of the longest peacetime economic expansions in American History, somewhat similar to the impact, albeit shorter, of the JFK tax cuts of the early ‘60s. Is there anything that Margolis and the Tribune’s editors get right?

Margolis repeats the shibboleth that Reagan’s policies “exacerbated inequality and [caused] the poverty rate to rise during his presidency.” Yes, you can find articles supporting that, I imagine, in such magazines as the New Republic and and articles asserting that the reverse is true in National Review and the Weekly Standard, not to mention articles debating the topic in such economics journals as the Journal of Political Economy. In short, Margolis finished the way he started, giving the reader half-truths and half the story.

I hope this is not what Chicago Tribune reporting is starting to mean—opinion disguised as fact, with the spectrum of opinion represented consisting primarily of that which is left of Center, as people like Margolis appear neither to understand nor care about the opinion that is center or right of center. Worse, for the Tribune to label Margolis’ biased reporting as “Ronald Reagan’s Legacy,” is offensive, at best. Couldn't the Tribune wait at least a few weeks after President Reagan's death to give us Trickle Down Distortions of the Reagan record from retired lefties, and couldn't they stick it on the Op-Ed page, labelling it for what it is-- Jon Margolis' opinion.

In a similar circumstance in the future, we hope someone other than the person at the Tribune who gave the Okay to today's paper {Lipinski or O'Shea] will take a look at who is being chosen to “report on” a President’s, or some other notable figure's legacy. Obviously Margolis was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time to give us such a report. Maybe the Publisher and the Editors need to start reading the Chicago Tribune on a regular basis. The first page is probably as good a place as any to start.

Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of “Public Affairs,” can be reached at