Shelving of `Reagans' touches off hot debate

November 05, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

CBS made history yesterday by yanking The Reagans, a controversial historical miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, from its November lineup in reaction to a firestorm of criticism that ignited without anyone outside CBS ever seeing the film.

It is the first time the network, which celebrated its 75th anniversary on-air Sunday night, ever canceled such a high-profile film or miniseries once it had been given an air date. The Reagans, starring James Brolin and Judy Davis as the former president and first lady, had been scheduled to air Nov. 16 and 18 as the centerpiece of the network's November "sweeps" lineup.

CBS managed to escape charges of outright censorship by announcing that the film would air "sometime in 2004" on the Showtime pay cable channel, which, like the network, is owned by Viacom. But rather than removing CBS from the line of fire, the precedent set yesterday instantly touched off another debate as to whether the network made a sound decision in favor of taste and respect for history, or shamelessly caved in to pre-emptive political pressure. Either way, the decision is expected to have profound effects on the way network television deals with national history.

In a statement issued yesterday, the network acknowledged that the film "does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience." But the most interesting aspect of the statement is that it neither quotes nor attributes the decision to any network executive, particularly not CBS President Leslie Moonves, who has been trying to distance himself from the film in recent days as criticism mounted.

One of the harshest critics of The Reagans has been the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group that had urged an advertiser boycott in reaction to what Brent Bozell, its founder, termed "a left-wing smear of one of the nation's most beloved presidents." Bozell yesterday called CBS' decision "a wise one."

But others disagreed, calling it a dangerous step toward censorship. Some saw similarities between pre-air attacks on The Reagans and the struggle Mel Gibson is having getting his biblical epic The Passion of Christ into theaters.

"Look, it is not pure censorship - no one told CBS they couldn't air The Reagans. They did it on their own, and that's important to remember," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"The onus is not on the Media Research Center. They were just doing what they are supposed to do. The onus is on CBS, and that's the chilling part: This big network let the protesters do this to them - pull the plug on a $9 million film. What's next?"

"In pulling the film, CBS did incredible harm, much more harm than they could ever have done in making the film," said Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. "What they've told us now is that a small group of people have censorship power over the broadcast networks."

What complicates the issue for some is the very nature of docudrama - a debased genre that includes wholesale invention and what Thompson called "pure dish." Networks have become so brazen in ignoring any journalistic or historical concerns of accuracy that some analysts see it as significant that CBS finally admitted there was a line and that The Reagans crossed it.

"I do find it offensive that important points of our national history are totally rewritten in such docudramas to serve entertainment values intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator," said Phil Seib, media historian and Lucius W. Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University.

"So, you have to legitimately ask yourself whether this could be interpreted as a victory for history and taste. If it is, though, it would be a rare one when it comes to network television and our national past. And it does raise serious concerns that such pressure was mounted and the film was pulled without anyone outside of CBS seeing it."

The controversy started last month when CBS sent a cassette with selected "highlights" from the miniseries to critics. Portions of the script were also selectively leaked. The highlights showed Nancy Reagan portrayed as a modern-day Lady Macbeth, manipulating her husband and scheming backstage to run the White House. Reagan was portrayed as mean-spirited and often befuddled.

The portion of the script that has drawn the most fire involved a portrayal of Reagan as being utterly insensitive to those suffering from AIDS. When Nancy tries to enlist his aid in fighting the emerging epidemic, the script has Reagan replying, "They that live in sin, shall die in sin."

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