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the Reagans: David Overreacts
by jeremy   December 29, 2003
ronald, nancy, reagan, cbs

I usually agree with my good friends who are fellow contributors to the CSP website. However, recently I read an essay, written by Dave, that I thought deserved a rebuttal. We'll see if Dave posts this or not. I know he will, but it would certainly be ironic if he didn't (you'll understand why if you read his essasy). The essay in question, by the way, is "We are Liars and Traitors," written about CBS network's decision not to air a miniseries about the Reagans.

The decision by CBS, a privately-owned company, to pull the plug on the Reagan miniseries is hardly "a blow to art and free speech," as Dave characterized it. CBS simply responded to market forces and elected to avoid controversy. The decision may have been cowardly, but it's hardly censorship. If the Bush administration had pressured the FCC to threaten CBS with revocation of license or some such thing if it aired the miniseries, then we could label it an act of censorship.

When MTV chose not to air a Madonna video in 1990, she told Nightline's Ted Koppel that she was being "censored." Again, MTV is a private company and they can choose to air or not air what they choose. Interestingly, Nightline aired the video to show their viewers what all the fuss was about. Too racy for MTV, but not for ABC, apparently.

Clearly, any show about Ronald Reagan is going to be controversial. His administration is not ancient history. Many Americans have very strong feelings -- one way or another -- about the Reagan years. CBS was probably being naive to think a movie about a politically conservative icon with James Brolin and Judy Davis in the lead roles would not rustle some feathers.

To be fair, CBS should have tried to ensure that a movie about Reagan would be balanced. He and his family members are still living (though he is so ill he is unable to defend himself). Those who worked with and for him are still alive and well, many still in government. Can't CBS make sure that they don't air a hatchet job? In fact, the series contains some episodes of dubious historical accuracy. While it is true that Reagan may have said something like "They that live in sin shall die in sin" with regards to AIDS victims, his biographers say that he certainly did not supply names to the Hollywood blacklist of communists, as the miniseries claims. And according to one article I read, in the miniseries Reagan refers to himself as "the Antichrist," in case we miss the point.

The writers and producers say they are merely taking the literary licenses required to make a good television drama. But many will ask why literary license must be taken at all when dealing with such recent events, much less dealing with a beloved former American president who is still living. For example, there is virtually no historical evidence to illuminate the real nature of the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings relationship. As such, writer have taken more liberties and concocted all kinds of stories about them, including some that I have found offensive. But Mr. Reagan, his wife, his children, friends, etc. are still alive. What did the folks at CBS think was going to happen?

Now, I'm not saying that the miniseries should not air. I'm only saying that under these circumstances, CBS should have understood that many advertisers would be wary of this program. Further, they are perfectly within their rights to object to this program and say they will not advertise with CBS if the network goes forward with the broadcast. And CBS is within their rights to take that information into account as it decides what to air and what not to air.

For those who think I'm letting CBS off the hook, let me suggest an alternative scenario. Let's say that a network decides to air a program about Anne Frank. Only in this version, she holds some Nazi sympathies and tries to sneak out of hiding in order to bed a young Aryan soldier in order to produce "half-pure" children. She says she can't tell any of her family of this feeling because she knows they wouldn't understand. She starts to write about it in her diary, but crosses it out because she's too embarrassed.

A writer could say he is simply taking some literary licenses in order to make the story "more dramatic." After all, the old Anne Frank story has been told a million times. "Time to add some ol' sex and pepper to the tale," he tells TV Digest.

Think of how outraged and offended the world would be by this program. Think of the protests that would be organized. Advertisers and many other groups would rally and would demand that the network not run the miniseries. In all likelihood, the network would relent and the show would be shelved (or burned).

As a former president, Ronald Reagan is a prime candidate for a biopic, no doubt. But because there are so many people who love him and many who most definitely do not love him, let's leave it to the History Channel to do a show about his life, not CBS.

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