(Dis)Trust but Verify: How CNN’s Pathetically Bad Reagan Documentary Betrays History

New program indicative of cable network's escalating problem with facts, fairness and reality

The Clown News Network, the Corrupt News Network, the Communist News Network, the Clinton News Network — take your pick. CNN has been called all these things over the years. Many think they all suit the cable network, while still others call it the “Fake News” network of cable television.

Its lead teleprompter reader, Wolf Blitzer, once played “Celebrity Jeopardy.” He managed to get nearly every answer wrong and ended up thousands of dollars in the hole but, apparently because they felt sorry for him, was allowed to participate in Final Jeopardy — in which he also flubbed the answer.

Just the other week, he theorized on air that the Barcelona terrorist attack was a copycat of the murder in Charlottesville — completely ignoring the history of recent Islamic terrorists.

This is but one example of how CNN has forgotten history and disregarded facts (let’s not even begin to talk about Jim Acosta). In the just-aired “The Reagan Show,” the network managed both. It is sad to see this once proud and fiercely reliable cable system descend into an instrument of liberal hatred and invective.

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“The Reagan Show” depicts the Great Communicator as a showman, a con. He’s a doofus, a jokester who never takes his job seriously. There are lots of selective bloopers and intentional delays in his answers. While Reagan was well-known for his quick wit, we must question why CNN’s “The Reagan Show” wanted to make this the sole focus. Surely it wasn’t to show that he could have fun, was it? That he could put a smile on his face? And on others’?

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No, it was to mock him. What was billed as a lighthearted look at the behind-the-scenes taping of the president instead tries to make him a laughingstock. We don’t have to even ask for the network’s motives. Those like CNN are literally incapable of praising the president now, much less President Reagan then. Not one mention of the turnaround from the Carter recession. Not one mention of the crushing defeat of the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War (if anything, glorifying the defeated Gorbachev and ignoring the alliance with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II). Not one mention of his other successes, nor of his huge popularity.

All clips are selectively (corruptly?) edited to give the appearance of an awkward old man. To give one example of this: During the annual pardoning of a turkey one Thanksgiving, Reagan joked about shooting more of them. Because the audio was solely on Reagan’s microphone, we, the audience, could only hear his laughter, no one else’s. So it’s only Reagan laughing and … we get the impression, no one else. Complete silence. Fake news? Contemptible? You bet.

Stretch that scene out to some 90 minutes, and that’s what you have here. You get a difficult, elderly man who makes jokes, mispronounces words and names, repeats himself (there was a good 20-second montage of his just saying the Russian “Doveryai, no Proveryai” [Trust, but Verify] at various venues), and ignores the media.

There’s a large section of the documentary that is focused solely on the name “Star Wars,” which critics gave to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Forget the fact that a large percentage of Americans supported the program, or that it was, in fact, a good idea, and had been successfully deployed. Let’s cut to Democratic congressmen and NATO members mocking the President and mocking his “evil empire” remark and miscasting SDI as a Death Star.

Even the title of the documentary emphasizes the supposed charade and supposed fakeness of his presidency. The first clip shows a quip, “There have been times in this office when I wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” After a smattering of praises and condemnations (calling him “out of touch,” criticizing Reaganomics), the montage of clips ends with Reagan saying that he wanted to “make America great again.” Subtlety was never the Left’s strong point, especially when we get clips of threats of nuclear annihilation.

Only Democrats and liberals and teleprompter readers are interviewed for this waste of a film. They all trash Reagan. What a surprise. There is Sam Donaldson, wig firmly in place, claiming Reagan lived in a make-believe world! There is Jessica Savitch, long deceased, who once asked me how the delegates who went to the Republican convention could in turn go to the Democratic convention and be just as enthusiastic! She thought they were the same people. A network reporter! Such stupidity was and is rampant among the national media. Just ask one to take a basic civic literacy exam.

CNN charges that the whole Reagan presidency was a show. That is quite a damning accusation. Apparently they never read about the Kennedy presidency, in which every movement of JFK and his family was filmed, photographed, and recorded, except, of course, Kennedy’s dozens of illicit and even dangerous sexual encounters. FDR was never photographed in his wheelchair, a deliberate conspiracy by news photographers. Sounds like a show to us.

Why make this documentary now? Why focus on silly antics, his critics, his acting career? If this film came from, say, a more objective source, we could chalk this up to odd editing, or an attempt at giving a more human appearance to the 40th president. But because this is CNN, we have to step back. CNN manages to unify Variety and National Review in their condemnation of “The Reagan Show,” which takes some doing.

Struggling in its attempts to undo the latest presidential election, we see here CNN trying to undo elections where, respectively, 44 and 49 states voted for one man. He who controls the past ….

There were dozens of direct and indirect false comparisons between President Trump and President Reagan, and it’s clear that with every gaffe presented here, every friendly movement toward Gorbachev (a Russian!), we’re supposed to look to the present. Maybe we should tell CNN that Reagan will still have been president from 1981 to 1989, at the end of the day. On the flip side, can we compare the Iran-Contra scandal (which was a sizable chunk of the film) to Obama’s scandal giving millions of dollars to Iran in the last year of his presidency? Probably not — that would be “unfair.”

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And that’s exactly the word that summarizes this documentary: unfair (and a waste of your precious time). When there are positive and powerful events in the presidency, the film immediately cuts to and is overshadowed by his occasional irreverence or his critics or scandals. The Berlin Wall speech, one of the most important speeches of the 1980s, was glanced over, and immediately the focus turned to how much of a failure Reagan was in reuniting the German people. (He wasn’t.) When the Russians and Americans agreed on an arms-reduction treaty (good!), we have a montage of conservative leaders calling him “traitor” to the cause, and accusing him of being in bed with the liberals (bad!).


It bears repeating that no conservative or historian appears on Reagan’s behalf, only liberals to trash him. But the ubiquitous liberal Republican David Gergen is there, to add his one cent, such as it is.

Thus speaks the Kennedy School of Government on Reagan — all show, no substance. Shock and Surprise.

What’s astonishing is that, with a documentary focused solely on archives and footage of President Reagan, with no narrator or captions, there should have been a factual account of the man. That’s the easiest way to present an unbiased, accurate narrative. Yet somehow CNN managed to mess that up, too.

Voltaire once said, “The duties of a historian are many and various. Allow me to remind you of two of them, which are of some consequence; these are, never to rail, and never to be tedious.” CNN does both in this mashup.

CNN now cares little about history, and more about its agenda. It just so happens that its agenda and facts are not on the same side. Funny, it’s never been called the Cerebral News Network.

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and author of four bestsellers on Ronald Reagan, most recently “Reagan Rising.” His latest political biography on Newt Gingrich, “Citizen Newt,” is now available on Amazon. Scott Mauer is Craig Shirley’s researcher.

Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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