Yesterday, CBS announced that it would not broadcast a grossly inaccurate miniseries on the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan. The decision may ameliorate the harm to CBS’ reputation, but the network’s choice not to spike the series entirely, but simply to send it to Showtime, demonstrates the ethical rot that persists in the grand old network.
Several individuals deserve credit for safeguarding Mr. Reagan’s legacy. Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times broke the story about distortions in the miniseries script. Matt Drudge’s constant scoops and persistent advocacy was the locomotive that pulled the train. Michael Paranzino organized the BoycottCBS.com movement, which received thousands of hits. Television host and producer Merv Griffin attested to specific inaccuracies. RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie wrote to CBS President Leslie Moonves requesting that either the miniseries be fact-checked or that viewers be informed of its fictions. The Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell wrote advertisers requesting they review the series before making their sponsorship decisions.
Yet, those outcries would have gone silent had they not been amplified by the Americans who threatened to extract the revenge of poor ratings and reduced advertising revenues if CBS proceeded to sully Mr. Reagan’s legacy. The truth about Mr. Reagan was preserved not by his personal friends or biographers, but rather by the millions of freedom-loving Americans who remember what he gave this nation.
CBS’ decision to place the miniseries with Showtime scarcely resolves the situation. It simply reduces the scope of the slander. (On a good night, Showtime has about 1 million viewers.) If historical accuracy is more of a concern than damage control, then CBS should allow whatever finished product emerges from the editing room to be reviewed by Reagan experts.
The network could start by calling Lou Cannon and Martin Anderson, Reagan biographers who should have been brought in originally. Historian Michael Beschloss and documentary-maker Ken Burns could be consulted. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris might be balanced by Bush filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd. There are probably scores of former Reagan staffers who would freely serve as fact-checkers to ensure Mr. Reagan’s record stays straight.
In their statement announcing the switch to Showtime, CBS executives said they “recognize and respect the filmmakers’ right to have their voice heard and their film seen.” Yet, that ducks the central issue of accuracy. After all, if the Reagan miniseries is so skewed that it should not air on CBS, it should not be seen on Showtime either.
As Mr. Gillespie pointed out in the letter he sent Mr. Moonves, “Those graduating from college this year were only about five years old when President Reagan left office, and this broadcast will have a significant impact on their understanding of his legacy.” Many are anxious to diminish that legacy, as the calumnious miniseries proves. Those who care about the truth should keep the pressure on Showtime, CBS and the parent company, Viacom.