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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, June 5, 2004

Who Was The Mystery Source On Reagan's Health?

By J.M. Berger

Editor's Note: A version of this political analysis was written and published several hours before the announcement of President Reagan's death. It was initially posted at 1 p.m. on June 5. Because it was previously published, it has been edited to reflect the news of the former president's death rather than simply being removed.

Several hours before news of Ronald Reagan's death became public, the major newswires broke a story on Saturday about his declining health (external link).

The source of the story may have been identified too specifically in early versions of the story. In early reports, CNN and UPI identified the source as a "White House spokesman on Air Force One" and "a spokesman for President Bush aboard Air Force One" respectively.

But these characterizations were edited in later versions of the story. CNN revised the sourcing to read "sources familiar with the situation" within hours of the initial posting.

AP cited a "person familiar with Reagan's health, who did not want to be identified out of sensitivity to the family." Reuters simply said the source was "close to the situation."

"Don't be surprised if ... the time is getting close," CNN quoted the source as saying.

Could the president himself technically be considered a "spokesman for President Bush?" It's unlikely. Such a characterization would be misleading at best, dishonest at worst.

Regardless, the information obviously came from Bush, either directly or through a close spokesman. The "sensitivity of the family" would not likely be an issue otherwise. The deletion of references to a "spokesman for President Bush" and "on Air Force One" seems to indicate that any attribution tying the information to the president was objected to by the source.

The question of "sensitivity to the family" and the initial denials from the Reagans' spokesperson (contradicted, of course, by news of the former president's death) strongly indicate that the family had not wished for the information to become public.

Certainly, the news of Reagan's death will have massive political ramifications for the Republican National Convention in August. It will dramatically change the tenor of that event.

Usually, the early days of the convention feature speeches from some of the more stridently conservative elements of the party on some of the more divisive issues of the day. This accomplishes the dual goals of energizing the party's conservative base while providing a cathartic outlet for divisive partisan anger before the party moves toward the center for the general election.

Reagan's death will shift media coverage from the traditional airing of right-wing grievances to a series of softer-focus tributes to the beloved former president.

The news will also change the tenor of the Democratic Convention in July. It would undercut a similar dynamic for the Democrats by forcing them to temper the anger of the party's left-wing, usually on display in the opening part of the convention.

During the general election, Democrats may also feel pressured to downplay attacks that make comparisons between Bush and Reagan policies, particularly in the area of taxes and deficit spending, an area where Bush may be vulnerable.

A tricky ethical question for reporters covering this story: Can the president of the United States fairly be considered an off-the-record source? There is some precedent for citing the president that way, but it seems problematic, given the magnitude automatically accorded a presidential statement.

Reporters treat such statements as bigger news than they would a statement by a regular source, but the obscuring of the source to a degree such as that seen in the Reagan revisions illustrates the diminishing impact of the story when such a change is made.

One final red flag about the sourcing: When the New York Times published its own story almost five hours later, it cited entirely different sources (including family friends who confirmed that Reagan's health was slipping) and made no reference to the earlier reports, except to quote Reagan's official spokesperson who dismissed "rumors" and denied the former president's health had changed recently. By 4 p.m., the Washington Post still had not published a report on the story at all.

However, the papers of record may have been holding back out of respect for the family, if they knew his death was truly at hand.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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