- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

The moment CBS executives learned the producers of a miniseries, “The Reagans,” had done something tawdry, ignorant, spiteful and tasteless, they should have told them to take a walk.

Ratings are important, the executives could have said, but not important enough to further cheapen the network that way.

Instead, the executives let protests build from people respectful of Ronald Reagan, and then hightailed it, at that point looking like cowards.

They are transferring the series to a cable network, Showtime, which is owned by the same parent company, thereby protecting some of their investment and muting the complaints of the critics.

Here is the background. CBS picked up the Reagan project, which had been around for a while, and executives approved a script. Matt Drudge of the Web’s “Drudge Report” somehow got hold of the script and began publicizing its contents and some people saw a trailer.

Any number of conservative organizations were outraged by what they learned of the series and urged businesses to back off sponsoring products on CBS. It was then that CBS decided to move an edited version to Showtime.

The problem with the series, according to reports on its content, was that it looked to wreck reputations with falsehoods. For instance, it had Mr. Reagan saying AIDS was God’s way of punishing homosexuals.

According to testimony from people who knew him intimately, including people who did not care for his politics, he is a kind, tolerant man who would never have said any such thing. CBS took out this portion of the series, but check out Mr. Drudge’s column on his site and you will find this scripted dialogue between Ronald and Nancy Reagan during the Iran-Contra investigation.

“REAGAN: It’s Armageddon … That’s what it is. Armageddon. The leader from the West will be revealed as the anti-Christ, and then God will strike him down. That’s me. I am the anti-Christ.

“NANCY: No, Ronnie… .

“REAGAN (overriding): And the Lord will strike down all of civilization, in order to make way for the new order … a new Heaven and a new Earth… .”

When they first read the script, the CBS executives should have noted that the miniseries’ producers had opted against a portrayal of President Reagan, providing instead a portrayal of a wholly fictional President Ding-a-ling, and they should have considered that the real-life Reagan is 92 years old and dying of Alzheimer’s disease.

The executives’ change of heart about airing this travesty, they anonymously told the New York Times, was a consequence of moral reflection. If that’s true, more power to them. My suspicion is that their second thoughts were a consequence of cravenness, and there are problems with that.

If you honestly think you are in the right, you serve this democratic society poorly by hiding out in the woods when the battle gets fierce.

Efforts to close the mouths of others come from every quarter. Some liberal commentators apparently think pressure of this sort can only come from conservatives. They were apparently in a coma recently when radio host Rush Limbaugh was pushed into resignation from an ESPN TV show.

His supposed sin was that he contended that some sportswriters had said good things about a black quarterback because it was important to them that black quarterbacks succeed. I think he was mistaken to guess at the motives of sportswriters, and from what I am told by sports-savvy friends, the quarterback is superb.

Still, Mr. Limbaugh’s remarks were far from what some called them — “racist” — and no fewer than three Democratic presidential candidates were among those demanding he be fired.

The way for executives to have sure footing on questions of what to air and what not to air and who to fire and who not to fire is to have standards in addition to paying attention to the market.

ABC recently put on a production about Jesus possibly being married, even though it’s transparently idiotic to suppose there’s scholarship backing up such speculation. The show was bound to be offensive to millions who follow a faith that has been a great sustaining power of Western civilization, and my question is this: Is nothing sacred to the people who run the broadcast networks?

Not much, I sometimes figure.

Jay Ambrose is chief editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.

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