The Rightwing Media Publication that Deeply Influenced Ronald Reagan

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tags: Ronald Reagan, election 2016, Trump, Human Events, Breitbart

Laurence Jurdem is an independent scholar who received his Ph.D. in U.S. History from Fordham University. For more information, please visit the author's website

When President-Elect Donald Trump hired Stephan K. Bannon, head of the controversial website Breitbart News as his chief White House strategist, the appointment sent shockwaves across the national media spectrum. But, this is not the first time a rightwing media organization has played a role in contributing to the shaping of a presidential agenda. While Ronald Reagan never appointed a member of the conservative press to a key position in the West Wing, America’s 40th president did retain figures from National Review and Commentary to serve as members of his speechwriting, domestic and foreign policy staff. But it was Human Events, a little-known conservative tabloid and one that bears a number of similarities to Breitbart, that had a role in not only shaping the conservative ideology of Ronald Reagan but also his presidency.

Human Events initially began as a newsletter during the latter years of the Second World War, when right-leaning journalists William Henry Chamberlin, Frank Hanighen, and Felix Morley decided to create a publication that offered news and commentary to those unhappy with the lack of media opposition to the New Deal. More than 60 years later, the late conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart and his colleague Larry Solov decided to create an alternative political website that as Solov wrote in 2015, “was unapologetically pro freedom and pro-Israel,” issues the two men did not believe were being addressed by the establishment media that had come to dominate the worldwide web. Over the course of their history, Human Events, which ended its print edition in 2013, changed over time. The publication, which was considered a key part of the isolationist “Old Right until becoming more interventionist in the late 1940s, shifted from a newsletter to a tabloid publication. The newspaper’s bold headlines, short, punchy commentary and provocative language was designed to entertain, motivate, and educate its passionate rightwing activist audience. Breitbart bears many similarities, including its tabloid design, powerful political agenda and fiery style of commentary that continues to inspire the devoted fan base of the late Mr. Breitbart. Both media outlets focused on the news of the day as well as certain topics such as media bias, a liberal obsession with big government and criticism of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The two also served as platforms for commentators on the right whose messages reflected the ideas that each organization advocated.

While it remains uncertain how much of Mr. Trump’s worldview is shaped by Breitbart, Ronald Reagan was a devoted reader of Human Events going back to the period in which the former actor was employed as a spokesman for GE. As Reagan began his shift into politics he continued to read the publication. The future president liked the short, direct manner of the articles that the publication’s editor, Allan Ryskind published. The newspaper was printed weekly and would frequently dwell on repeated themes like the Cold War or GOP policy critiques of government regulation and taxes. Breitbart appears to follow a similar formula, though it has often been accused of frequently crossing the line between legitimate news and conspiracy theory. Over the course of its history, the website has gone out of its way to the stoke the conspiratorial instincts of the far right from issues like out-of-control immigration, the “Birther Movement” and other rhetoric with the goal of delegitimizing the Obama presidency.

While most of Human Events reporting was extremely accurate, the publication was not beyond the realm of being criticized for spinning its own conspiracy theories with articles like “State Department Spreading Marxism in Central America.” Despite these accusations of editorial inaccuracy, Reagan relied on Human Events as a major source of information throughout his presidency. The late conservative columnist M. Stanton Evans recalled Attorney General and longtime Reagan associate Edwin Meese saying: “Reagan put more credence in Human Events than he did in the New York Times.” But not everyone within the president’s inner circle was a fan of the publication. It was well known among conservatives that a number of Reagan advisors tried to prevent the president from receiving the newspaper. Human Events was suspicious of the moderate Republicans who roamed the corridors of the West Wing. Reagan was not amused by his advisors’ behavior, as historian Lee Edwards recalled. “When he discovered White House aides were blocking its delivery, President Reagan arranged for multiple copies of Human Events to be sent to the White House residence every weekend.” Despite opposition, Reagan continued to utilize Human Events as a means of allowing him to gain insight about what was occurring among activists within the Republican Party as well as in his own administration. When Reagan appeared at a White House reception for the conservative tabloid in July of 1987, his brief comment could not have said more about the reverence with which he viewed the publication. “In the pages of Human Events, one gets a picture of the world as it really is,” the president said, to the delight of Allan Ryskind and his fellow editor and political activist Thomas Winter. In emphasizing the importance of the media outlet, Reagan may have also been responding to those within his administration who had tried to prevent the president from receiving one of his favorite sources of reading material.

While the publication’s coverage of the administration was frequently favorable, there were times when Ryskind and Winter had no problem showing their displeasure if they believed Reagan as well as other policy makers within the GOP had deviated from conservative ideology. Patrick J. Buchanan, who served as Director of Communications in the Reagan Administration recalled the president “denouncing Human Events” over its disapproval following his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland during the fall of 1986. Buchanan was well aware that when Ryskind and his colleagues disapproved of something the president had done they could be quite severe in their criticism and “that would really come home to Ronald Reagan,” Buchanan said. But despite the publication’s occasional displeasure with his programs, Reagan continued to employ Human Events as a means of reinforcing his conservative beliefs even after he left the Oval Office. In 1994, a decidedly frail Reagan delivered a video address to commemorate Human Events’ 50th anniversary. The former president, despite being in declining heath, was not willing to forgo showing his appreciation to the publication that had praised his political debut in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

It is still too early to tell if Breitbartwill have the same effect on Donald Trump that Human Events had on Ronald Reagan. During Reagan’s presidency, the editors of Human Events chose to purposefully not pursue jobs in the administration because of the belief that they would lose their editorial credibility with the politicians they covered on a daily basis. But one wonders how objective the internet publication can be with its driving force, Mr. Bannon, residing just a few doors down from the Oval Office. While cultivating members of the conservative media allowed President Reagan to gain a deeper insight into the views of his supporters, he was also willing to risk their anger if he believed his decisions about a particular policy would make a significant difference in the lives of the American people. As Donald Trump prepares to take the oath of office next month, one can only speculate if those advisors from the Republican establishment will attempt to limit the influence of Breitbart as members of Reagan’s staff did with Human Events or whether the publication will become an internal source of intelligence for those within the Trump White House to monitor who is supporting their agenda and who isn’t.

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