New York Times coverage of the unveiling of Ronald Reagan's statue in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday reveals not only how myths are perpetuated in the media but also how the omission of critical context distorts history.
In the print version of Thursday's Times report, readers are at least given a terse idea of the man Mr. Reagan's statue was replacing -- Thomas Starr King, "the 19-century Unitarian minister known as the 'orator who saved the nation' for helping to keep California from seceding as a republic during the Civil War." Yet in the online version posted a day earlier, and a full 140 words longer than its printed companion, King is described only as "a 19th-century Unitarian minister and 'Orator Who Saved the Nation.'”
But aside from the appearance of the Times having done nothing more than to cut and paste from the first two sentences of King's Wikipedia entry (for which journalists and news outlets have already been burned recently), the historical significance of supplanting King's statue with that of Reagan's seems completely lost on our paper of record.
As usual, context is king, but it's in short supply in the print edition and non-existent in the online piece. Moreover, quite literally in this case, context is King. And also Reagan. The real Reagan, however, not the cartoonish log-splitting and horseback-riding grandfather who "won the Cold War" and "made us proud to be Americans."
Beyond the bizarrely inscrutable Times description "19th-century Unitarian minister and 'Orator Who Saved the Nation'" and even with the additional stingy mention that he happened to save the nation by "helping to keep California from seceding as a republic during the Civil War," Thomas Starr King was an American hero deemed so for actual virtuous, brave and patriotic deeds while Ronald Reagan's heroic status is almost wholly a myth created by the Republican Party and canonized by our mainstream media. (I say "almost wholly" because Reagan was admittedly a great politician -- a former actor who did much to convince many Americans to believe this myth; at the time, it wasn't only a media creation. Moreover, the American presidency itself confers certain intrinsic mythic qualities, ready-made for such a charismatic figure.)
McClatchy Newspapers reporter Rob Hotakainen supplies some of that much needed context about King.
Not everyone's pleased that Reagan is being put on a pedestal, particularly the descendants of Starr King, who helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War.
"Unfortunately, people say, 'Who was Thomas Starr King?' " said Ginny King Supple, Starr King's great-great-granddaughter, from Los Angeles. "He never got the public recognition after the fact. He was very well-known back in the 1800s and early 1900s. So it is disturbing."
She voted for Reagan, but she said: "From a historical perspective, Thomas Starr King had a lot more to do with the state of the state of California, as opposed to President Reagan. I'm not coming down on Ronald Reagan. He was basically a great man in many ways, but the history of California lies with Thomas Starr King. That's why he was chosen." [As both versions of the Times article notes, each state in the country gets two statues with which to honor its heroes.]
Starr King gave thousands of speeches, up and down the state, railing against slavery, poverty and oppression. Even though the state had banned slavery, many Southerners who had moved to California wanted slaves and threatened to split the state and form their own republic. Starr King corresponded with Abraham Lincoln during his speaking tour.
"More than anything, he kept California from seceding from the Union during the Civil War," King Supple said. "He was a great orator."
Hotakainen also touches on the politics behind the ousting of King's statue.
It also caps a five-year effort by California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who launched the campaign to remove Starr King shortly after Reagan's death on June 5, 2004.
"I thought, well, you know, he was a great person, but he's been here for a while. Maybe we can replace him with Ronald Reagan," Calvert said. "And one thing led to another. ... We were able to get it done."
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Oakland historical author Jack Cheevers recently wrote:
The imminent removal from the U.S. Capitol of a statue of Thomas Starr King, a charismatic San Francisco minister and orator credited with helping keep California in the Union during the run-up to the Civil War, hardly qualifies as a major crime against history. Yet the successful effort by California Republicans to replace him in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a larger-than-life sculpture of Ronald Reagan is troubling nonetheless.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who says the Gipper inspired him as a boy, orchestrated the move to bump King. No doubt the congressman and other Republican stalwarts feel they can honor their hero by strewing the land with as many smiling likenesses of him as possible.
But although Reagan arguably has been sufficiently memorialized (with an airport, a museum, highways, courthouses, post offices, state office buildings and parks named after him, and his own postage stamp), King needs all the exposure he can get.
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Lochhead also reveals an uncomfortable and quite pertinent historical note.
Of course that's only one of the many catastrophic contributions by Ronald Reagan.
Regardless of Reagan's support of genocide in Latin America during the eighties to his devastating long-term economic policies -- which are at the very heart of today's economic collapse -- good ol' Ronnie, even in his afterlife, has managed to retain his famous Teflon coating about which so many mainstream reporters used to acknowledge yet fail to uncover. (A report from Robert Parry, a standout mainstream journalist from that era who went against this grain, is the first link above and highly recommended reading. Parry reveals just a taste of Reagan's true legacy.)
Among the many sad ironies of Reagan's statue replacing Thomas Starr King's, a man who railed "against slavery, poverty and oppression," is that while King is credited with saving California from seceding from the Union, Reagan has become the hallowed symbol of a political party whose members today openly toy with the idea of secession.
Just don't expect the Times to point out this fact.