Putting the B.S. back in CBS

By Matt Zakosek

Earlier this month—Election Day—CBS CEO-Chairman Leslie Moonves cancelled The Reagans, an allegedly inflammatory made-for-TV biopic about the former First Family that was supposed to air during November sweeps. I say “allegedly” because its conservative critics managed to condemn the movie without even watching it.

Their first complaint about the film was perhaps the most ludicrous. Many were concerned with the casting of James Brolin as Ronald Reagan, since in real life Brolin is married to über-Democrat Barbra Streisand. These complaints can be dismissed with a simple reminder: Brolin is an actor, people.

Next come the gripes about the script, which is where things get a little tricky. The most controversial line by far is one that was published in the October 21 New York Times, spoken by the television Reagan in response to AIDS-prevention efforts: “They that live in sin shall die in sin.”

Reagan loyalists insist he never said this. I would challenge them, however, with this: artists emphasize for the sake of effect. Maybe Reagan did not say those exact nine words, but the fact remains that he ignored the AIDS epidemic for an unseemly amount of time. He didn’t even mention AIDS publicly until 1987, and concern was mounting at least as early as 1981. By having Reagan say, “They that live in sin shall die in sin,” the writers of The Reagans may be embellishing, but they are hardly rewriting history.

Even if that line is unnecessarily harsh, is that really a reason to drop the entire movie? I don’t remember a similar uproar from Democrats when NBC aired Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. In fact, the most controversial TV movie before The Reagans had to be CBS’s Hitler: The Rise of Evil, which garnered complaints that it humanized Hitler and was historically inaccurate. It’s kind of scary to me that CBS didn’t cave in to the pressure about Hitler like they did with The Reagans. What’s the worse offense: humanizing Hitler, or criticizing Reagan? I guess we know what CBS thinks, but I disagree.

Let me play devil’s advocate here. Suppose the TV movie does defame the Reagans. Suppose Ronald does come off as senile, and Nancy does come off as abusive. Suppose it is, as syndicated talk-show host Larry Elder insists, “very unfair, one-sided.” Should it be cancelled—or, in the case of The Reagans, passed off to Showtime, which is almost the same thing? (Showtime will be lucky if it can get a tenth of the audience CBS would have.)

I say no. It is not the responsibility of art to always be fair, to tell us things we want to hear, to reinforce popular notions. Sometimes art is great because it challenges us—or, in the case of The Reagans, re-contextualizes certain events in order to make us think. In fact, by allowing The Reagans to air on Showtime, CBS is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Obviously they believe in this movie to some degree—if not, why not scrap it completely? Unfortunately, they did not have strong convictions and were too cowardly to fly in the face of the far right.

This is not the first controversy about the retelling of the Reagan story. In 2000, some found it scandalous that Edmund Morris wrote Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan in the form of a historic novel, even inserting himself into some scenes. The book received some middling reviews and some raves, but ultimately struggled under the weight of so much criticism—again, much of it from those who were appalled by the premise but didn’t bother to actually read the book.

I realize that Ronald Reagan Alzhaimers and is therefore unable to defend himself. Suggesting that we can only approach recent history with the consent of those involved, however, would be a mistake. A common axiom says “history is written by the winners,” but this is a descriptive, not a prescriptive, statement. Ronald Reagan was one of America’s most popular presidents, but the right to free speech has to apply to unpopular speech as well. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The critics of this movie say that it maligns Reagan—and it has the right to do so—but in the grand scheme of the culture, I hardly feel like the movie is kicking him when he is down. Just like any public figure, Reagan has his supporters and his detractors. In fact, since CBS cancelled the movie, it’s clear that he has more supporters, or at least that they have more pull in the entertainment industry. Therefore the film could have expressed a different point of view and contributed to public debate.

Art is not always designed to cater to both sides of a debate—in fact, it seems counterintuitive that it would do so. We learn as children that it’s impossible to please everyone. As a matter of fact, this is where most television movies fail, by trying to make a universal story out of an inherently controversial event.

Most recently, Saving Private Lynch and The Elizabeth Smart Story tried to fashion their respective heroines into American princesses, ignoring everything interesting about either story. Come on. If you want objectivity, turn on the news.

CBS thinks by shunting The Reagans off to Showtime, it’s proving that it makes television for everyone—not just Democrats. What they’re really proving is that they make television for no one. If no programming could air without a special-interest group in mind, everything from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Touched by an Angel could be deemed “too controversial.”

I’m no Republican, but there’s no malice in my heart toward Reagan. I would support similarly controversial biopics about Presidents Clinton and Carter. In fact, I plan to watch The Reagans when it airs on Showtime and would also like to watch A&E’s upcoming Hillary Rodham Clinton movie.

Interestingly enough, although A&E capitalized on the success of Hillary’s recent bestseller Living History when they announced the project, the film will not be based on Living History but on Gail Sheehy’s book Hillary’s Choice. A&E says their movie “will focus on Hillary’s quest to fulfill her own high hopes and ambitions as she repeatedly faces humiliating personal setbacks.” Hmm, that sounds pretty biased to me—as if Hillary’s political career is unimportant compared to the juicy drama of her personal life. So where’s all the uproar? It’s simple: Hillary isn’t as much of a sacred cow as Ronald Reagan. Therefore, there’s a double standard.

I would challenge Republicans to watch The Reagans on Showtime before making up their minds. I would also challenge them to accept that politically charged television works both ways, with both parties falling in and out of favor. By killing The Reagans, conservative critics got their wish, but I don’t see this as a victory for Republicans. By stifling the function of art in an open marketplace, the cancellation of the movie is a loss for us all.

Oh, and one more thing. Now that CBS caved in to the pressure from conservative watchdog groups, can we please put the “liberal media” myth to rest?