“The Reagans”

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Amazing but true, the far-right media machine has successfully held CBS entertainment to a higher standard of truth regarding the docudrama, "The Reagans" than the news media manages to hold the Bush administration regarding the war in Iraq. The ability of these would-be censors to "work the refs" on the issue of the CBS movie, "The Reagans" is truly impressive. Setting a new standard for accuracy in TV docudramas – something that never troubled them, for instance, when a network had to invent a voice of morality in the Reagan White House for an Ollie North biopic based on Guts And Glory: The Rise And Fall Of Oliver North by Ben Bradlee Jr.’s, because none existed in real life – the right not only got CBS to walk away from its $9 million investment, it got them to excise a statement emanating from Reagan’s mouth that was largely accurate.

In the miniseries, scriptwriters had President Reagan saying to Nancy, as she tries to get him to demonstrate a bit of compassion towards people dying of AIDS, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Yet according to the authorized biography, "Dutch" by Edmund Morris, what Reagan really said was "maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

In any case, it is hardly insignificant that President Reagan did not manage to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1987. In doing so, he offered us all a lesson about how silence can sometimes speak more loudly than words. (By 1987, more than 21,000 suffered from the disease and nearly than 12,000 had already died.)

Meanwhile, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves insisted that he had made the decision entirely on matters of quality, the tidal wave of right-wing pressure it was facing. (This is, recall, the network that produces "The Real Beverly Hillbillies.") And while liberals and many artists are understandably angry about the blow struck against free expression by the very people allegedly pledged to defend it, in fact, CBS has done the world a favor by demonstrating the power of the right-wing pressure machine to get what it wants from even the most powerful of entertainment conglomerates.

The far-right food chain that chewed up and spit out "The Reagans" was composed of Michael Reagan, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Joe Scarborough, and Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center – who started contacting CBS advertisers – and finally Republican National Committee Chair, Ed Gillespie. Knowing no boundaries of taste or fair play, it was willing to use the rumor of an actor’s stepson suffering from HIV as part of its campaign – "It doesn’t help that Streisand’s own son is suffering from HIV," Drudge opined to Sean Hannity – as well as the typical exploitation fare of Fox News and its many imitators. Hannity asked Ed Smart, the father of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, whether the family’s close involvement in a made-for-TV movie about the kidnapping was due to the treatment of the Reagans: "Maybe you thought what happened in the case of the Reagans, that that would happen to you?" All of this, recall, was based on a seven-minute highlight reel that the network sent around for promotional purposes.

The idea that these parties were genuinely interested in preserving the accuracy of the historical portrayal of the Reagans is almost too laughable to be taken seriously. Remember we are talking about a president whose own authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, even called an "apparent airhead." I did not see any of the right-wing food chain members agitating for the inclusion of such well-documented events as Reagan dishonestly claiming that he liberated concentration camps; of inventing what he called "a verbal message" from the Pope in support of his Central America policies, news to everyone in Vatican City; of lying to the nation about selling arms to terrorists; of announcing, back in 1985, that the vicious apartheid regime of P.W. Botha had already "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country"; or of justifying genocide in Central America. (Note: I do not use the term "genocide" lightly. The official Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala charged its own government with a campaign of "genocide" in murdering roughly 200,000 people, mainly Mayan Indians, during its dictatorial reign of terror. The commission’s nine-volume 1999 report singled out the U.S. role in aiding this "criminal counterinsurgency.")

The violence in Guatemala reached a gruesome climax in the early eighties under the dictatorship of the born-again evangelical, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. Nine hundred thousand people were forcibly relocated and entire villages leveled. As army helicopters strafed a caravan of 40,000 unarmed refugees seeking to escape to Mexico, Reagan chose that moment to congratulate Ríos Montt for his dedication to democracy, adding that he had been getting "a bum rap" from liberals in Congress and the media. His administration soon provided as much aid to the killers as Congress would allow. Much the same can be said about his policies in El Salvador. See this column for details.

The idea that Hollywood is ever to be held accountable for historical accuracy is also a wishful fantasy. Even in the much praised rendition of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Thirteen Days," screenwriters took endless liberties with the truth, including the convenient skipping Robert McNamara’s initial arguments that Russia’s placement of the missiles should be ignored because Soviet long-range missiles made them strategically meaningless, lest this comment undercut the film’s entire rationale as well as the entire record of U.S. efforts to destabilize the Castro regime, including contingency invasion plans being readied at the time of the emplacement. (It also vastly inflated the role of White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell, father of film’s main funder, Earthlink co-founder Kevin O’Donnell.)

Aside from the notorious Oliver Stone – who still manages to get his films made despite having all but accused Lyndon Johnson of murdering John Kennedy in order to expand the war in Vietnam – perhaps the worst offender in recent years is Mel Gibson. Even before the current controversy about his strange interpretation of the life of Jesus, his 2000 film, The Patriot, managed to come up with a version of the American Revolution in which the Americans, not the British, freed the slaves. No matter that the Southern revolutionaries fought to protect their "peculiar institution" while the British offered the slaves their freedom should they join the loyalist cause. Meanwhile, conservatives like William F. Buckley came forward to endorse Hollywood’s fictional history because it served their ideological purposes. Right-wing provocateur David Horowitz even complained about reviewers who had "taken to faulting its alleged historical ‘inaccuracies’ as a way of dismissing its significance," as if putting the slaves on the wrong side of history was a silly affectation of left-wing ideologues.

The successful effort to intimidate CBS is about politics; nothing more, nothing less. Matt Bivens reports on The Nation Web site about the efforts of Republican activist Grover Norquist and the Reagan Legacy Project, which is well along toward its stated goal of having at least one public building or street or structure named after Reagan in each of America’s 3,067 counties. That’s on top of the push to have Reagan’s face put on the ten dollar bill (instead of Alexander Hamilton), and the drives to put a Reagan monument on the Washington Mall (an honor so far reserved only for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt) and to carve Reagan’s head onto Mount Rushmore. And of course there’s already a Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington and the twin-nuclear-reactor powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which was christened this summer … oh, there’s also the commemorative Reagan stamp issued by, of all places, the island of Grenada (which also has the Ronald Reagan Scholarship Fund to send students to the United States for study) … and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.

CBS was staring at a ratings gold mine with "The Reagans" given the controversy it managed to produce. Imagine a campaign that began, "Watch the movie that powerful forces don’t want you to see!" Instead, it bowed to something in America that turns out to be even more powerful than the promise of a single-night’s killing; a well-organized movement of pressure groups willing to threaten its advertising base. Liberals should take heed. As a historian with a newly-minted Ph.D., I am in favor of historical accuracy in all matters. But as a student of the tactics of right-wing media manipulation, I know there is only one way to fight such fire.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.




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Eric Alterman

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