I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Bush supporters condemn fictionalized political mini-series -- in 2003

(updated below - updated again - and updated again)

When CBS announced in November, 2003 that it would broadcast a mini-series it produced about Ronald and Nancy Reagan called "The Reagans," Matt Drudge obtained excerpts from the script and published them. That led to right-wing bloggers, organizations and pundits, along with the RNC itself, demanding that CBS cancel the broadcast, which it did (moving it instead to Showtime, with a panel discussion afterwards filled with critics of the film).

Those who wanted the mini-series cancelled back then were making arguments which are highly relevant -- for reasons that are self-evident -- to ABC's plans to broadcast an indisputably fictionalized mini-series about 9/11, a film which includes exactly the fabricated dialogues and historical events which served as the ostensible basis for outrage over The Reagans:

Ed Gillespe, RNC Chairman -- Scarborough Country, 11/6/2003 (via Lexis)

GILLESPIE: And I think it was important that it be historically accurate. And if they didn't intend to make it historically accurate to make sure
that viewers understood that it was not intended to be historically accurate but a fictional portrayal. So we made two requests: One is having historians review it for accuracy if you're going to broadcast it. And if you're unwilling to do that, inform the viewers that it's not historically accurate.
That's not censorship, that's common sense. . .

I've sent a similar letter to the head of Showtime making the same point: "If you're not willing to have it reviewed for historical accuracy, make sure your viewers understand that it's a fictional portrayal. You know, in this society that we live in and with the media culture that we have, there's infotainment and docudrama and reality TV, and the lines between fact and fiction blur. That's fine when it's entertainment, but when you're talking about the formative phase of the Reagan legacy formation, I think that it's important that we get things right. . . .

I think that same standard should apply to the late president John F. Kennedy or to Jimmy Carter or any president. If you're going to portray a presidency and a president, I think you should do all you can to make sure it's accurate. . . .

Bill O'Reilly, O'Reilly Factor "Talking Points", 11/4/2003 (Via Lexis)

Today CBS issued this statement, "Although the mini-series features impressive production values and acting performances, and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience."Well, fine, but how could CBS green light the film in the first place knowing that the producers, the director and the featured actors are all left wing thinkers?

That would be like CBS commissioning a movie about the Clintons written by Rush Limbaugh and starring Dennis Miller and Ann Coulter. Do you think that would ever happen?

Brent Bozell, November 5, 2003

Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, scoffed at the notion that CBS was stifling free speech. "There is no such thing as creative license to invent falsehoods about people," Bozell said. "I don't care who you are. You don't have that right."

Republican National Committee, November 5, 2003

Some conservatives were unhappy that the program would be aired at all. "I don’t know the misinforming fewer viewers on Showtime solves the problem," said Jim Dyke Republican National Committee.

Ed Morrow, National Review, October 23, 2003

Judging from the accounts that have been creeping into the press and the promotional bits played by Matt Drudge as a fill-in host on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, the miniseries is a vicious smear of Reagan and his wife Nancy. . . .

The substitution of propaganda for fact is dangerous. It's not by accident that tyrants create "history" to justify their schemes. Hitler couldn't have taken control of Germany without the many anti-Semitic myths that had been allowed to fester and go unchallenged. Stalin and Mao couldn't have kept a heel on the neck of their countries without self-glorifying myths that demonized anyone who stood in their way. In this case, simple justice demands that the lies about Ronald and Nancy Reagan must not go unchallenged but, in a larger sense, truth itself must be defended. Attempts to distort our history must be resisted. Historical truth is simply too valuable to be made a plaything for biased filmmakers rewriting it to fit their politics.

Seth Leibsohn, National Review, November 6, 2003

The latest critique of the conservative movement — which should be a critique of anyone dedicated to the thought that our knowledge of history is bad enough — is that we censored a CBS miniseries on President Ronald Reagan because we think Reagan "untouchable." That is a mischaracterization. . . . Show the man in all his glory and all his defeat, we are not ashamed of history. We should all be ashamed of bad history, though — of dressing up fiction as fact. What offended us was a portrayal of Reagan that put words in his mouth he never uttered and attributed positions to him he never held. . . .

Perhaps if the CBS miniseries attempted accuracy, there would have been less concern. But we don't need false portrayals of living (but incapacitated) historical figures, in the nastiest forms possible. It's not decent, and it sure is not helping us understand history better — something we could all afford to do . . .

Bernard Golberg and Pat Buchanan -- Buchanan & Press, 11/26/2003 (via Lexis)

BUCHANAN: All right, Bernie . . . Here's what they've got Ronald Reagan saying in this film."Look at her," about Mrs. Kennedy. "Couldn't she at least have changed her dress? There's blood all over it."Housekeeper to Mrs. Reagan. "Are we going to cancel the cocktail party tonight?" "No, we're not going to cancel anything. Why should we cancel the cocktail party?"And the purpose of this is complete fabrication, utterly out of character with Ronald Reagan.

GOLDBERG: Exactly.

BUCHANAN: putting a lie in his mouth, in order to make the American people, or a generation that never knew him, hate him. Why do - I don't understand why Bill Press and other liberals will not at least say, get the lies out of his mouth.I don't think he was that good a president. But Dennis shouldn't put lies in his mouth.

GOLDBERG: I think that decent, open-minded, fair liberals cannot like that. They can't like it any more than conservatives like it.

After Bill Press described a hypothetical fictionalized mini-series written by conservatives about liberal politicians, this exchange occurs:

PRESS: And do you think liberals would be able to get CBS to cancel it? No way. . . .

GOLDBERG: I'm not buying that, by the way.

Republican National Committee -- CNN. October 31, 2003

The Republican National Committee Friday asked CBS to allow a team of historians and friends of former President Ronald Reagan and his wife to review a miniseries about the couple before it airs.

Republicans have expressed concern that the miniseries, titled "The Reagans," may inaccurately portray the couple.

Michael Medved, Scarborough Country, 11/5/2003 (via Lexis)

The whole idea of creating a movie about Ronald Reagan without consulting or involving someone like Peggy Noonan. Peggy Noonan was even brought into the "West Wing" to try to give that a little bit of balance. Why not have her -- she was a speechwriter for President Reagan -- consult on the movie? And you could have avoided some of these problems.If you are only going to have one Reagan biography on TV, and they only have had one, then for goodness sake, you do have a responsibility to make it a little bit balanced and not a smear job.

Hugh Hewitt, Weekly Standard, 11/6/2003

None of this trifling with the truth is playing well because America is at war, and war demands seriousness.

Finally, Digby yesterday made the important point that fictionalized histories are far more dangerous with recent events, where impressions are still forming, than with events in the distant past, where fictionalized events constitute an "alternative history" rather than its first draft: "But the key is that these films [Oliver Stone's films about JFK and Nixon] were about events that happened long in the past --- they were re-writing history, not writing the first draft while the immediate events were still being debated." Looks like Ed Gillespe beat Digby to that point:

Ed Gillespe, Chairman RNC, Scarborough Country, 11/6/2003 (via Lexis)

But I also think it points to a broader concern, which is a concern that we should be careful about how we portray historical figures, and especially when it's so current and so recent. You know, there's obviously been a lot of movies made about the late President Kennedy and others, but a lot of time had passed since those. And there have been more historical understanding of their presidencies. I think a lot of people were going to learn about the Reagan presidency for the first time, or at least learn what these screen writers at CBS and in Hollywood, how they perceived his presidency in this program. So I thought it was important that it be accurate.

To put it mildly, it is extremely difficult -- really, it's impossible -- for any reasonable person to have objected to The Reagans without also objecting to Path to 9/11. If a fictionalized account of an ex-President's chatter with his wife is outrageous and intolerable, surely a fictionalized account of how the 9/11 attacks occurred and who is to blame for them is at the very least equally outrageous and intolerable.


John Hinderaker, Powerline, 11/5/2003

Speaking of history, defamation has historically been considered a bad thing. "Artistic freedom" isn't normally construed as the freedom to lie about other people; certainly the First Amendment does not so construe it. However one views the role of the networks, it is hard to argue that part of their duty is to publish falsehoods about anyone, living or dead, public figure or not. "Artistic integrity" is a concept that applies to fiction; when one is broadcasting a documentary about actual people, the threshold requirement is that the documentary be true. The fact that the left openly regrets CBS's decision not to air a broadcast that flunked the elementary test of truth shows how far the Democrats have fallen.

UPDATE II: James Taranto acknowledges the obvioius comparison: "The Clintonites may have a point here. A few years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot, we were happy to see CBS scotch 'The Reagans.'"

UPDATE III: Unlike CBS did for the much less consequential The Reagans, Disney/ABC, at least for now, is refusing to refrain from broadcasting this proaganda. C&L has the video (and transcript) of the statement from Disney/ABC here, in which they attack critics of the film by claiming: "No one has seen the final version of the film–because the editing process is not yet complete, so criticisms of film specifics are premature and irresponsible."

That makes no sense. The only reason anyone knows anything about the content of the film is because they sent it around to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt precisely to induce them to comment (favorably) on it. If it's "premature and irresponsible" to comment on the film because it's not complete yet, why did they send around screeners to (right-wing) commentators? It only became "irresponsible" once the commentary went from drooling partisan praise to critiques of the film's fabrications and inaccuracies.

In addition to the obvious inequities, CBS' quick and complete cave-in to conservative protests over The Reagans, set next to ABC's combative attack on critics of this film, tell you all you need to know about the merits of the incessent, petulant complaints from Bush supporters about the "liberal MSM."

UPDATE IV: One of the individuals I quoted in this post demanding that CBS not broadcast The Reagans was Seth Leibsohn, who is currently the Producer of Bill Bennett's radio show. He sent me an e-mail asking me to add the following as an update to my post:


I see you quote me on your blog--for the record, I oppose this miniseries as well if it is fiction dressed up as fact, creates caricatures of real persons and events that are inaccurate, and inserts quotes that were not uttered, especially to make a point that was not intended. I said as much on Bill Bennett's Morning in America radio show (as did he, btw) this a.m. That ABC is stating "the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, and time compression," is not at all comforting on this issue. 9/11 needs no fiction, nor does its buildup. It was all dramatic--and horrifically dramatic--enough.


Seth Leibsohn
Producer-Bill Bennett's Morning in America
Fellow-The Claremont Institute

As I said, I think it's impossible for any reasonable person who opposed The Reagans not to opppose the 9/11 mini-series with equal vigor, at least. It seems that some opponents of The Reagans are realizing that as well, while the most dishonest partisan hacks try to justify how they could have demanded cancellation of The Reagans while lauding ABC for broadcasting this fictionalized 9/11 propaganda film.

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