Just say no to free speech
Just when I thought the network TV movie of the week and miniseries were gasping for their last breath, three -- count 'em, three -- TV movies aroused heated discussion last week in the popular media. Fairly amazing, considering that the most prominent of the films, The Reagans, hasn't even aired.
The chatter around The Reagans apparently started when former first lady Nancy Reagan expressed "concern" after an early sample of the script appeared in The New York Times in October. From there, the proverbial snowball began to roll. The conservative Media Research Center took up the cause, as did Michael Paranzino, a work-at-home dad who launched BoycottCBS.com, along with conservative media pundits on cable news networks and online. The critics complained that the film was unflattering and mean-spirited toward the Reagans, but more importantly, that the film was historically inaccurate. Bowing to pressure, CBS removed The Reagans from its November sweeps berth with the promise that it will air on sister cable network Showtime.
The official statement from CBS is that the decision to pull the film was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script." The statement goes on to say, "[The film] does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience. ... A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view."
Since when has any network shied away from buzz? Talk -- good or bad -- about a TV event brings media attention, elicits discussion, and, most importantly, brings viewers. Advertisers like viewers. And just what are these "standards" for free TV, and who sets them -- advertisers, conservative watchdog groups, or the viewing public for which the "free" broadcast network is supposed to serve?
The Media Research Center was notably silent when Showtime aired DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, a celebration of President Bush. They were not heard when conservative pundits demonized California gubernatorial candidate Cruz Bustamante for his membership in MEChA, a Chicano student organization. It's different, it seems, when praise is heaped upon conservative demagogues, or half-truths and lies are used to discredit an activist organization that -- hark -- happens to butt heads with their platform.
Which is why the banishing of The Reagans to Showtime is troubling. For as much as TV is generally disdained, there is something critics from all sides can agree on. It's powerful, pervasive, and influential. It's filled with crap and the occasional diamond in the rough. But most of all, it is the closest thing to a public square that we have. Actually, the public talk is not on TV at all. It occurs outside the box -- in the workplace and other public places. By anointing themselves the guardians of history, the Media Research Center et al. have denied a large portion of the viewing public from seeing The Reagans, thereby derailing any opportunity to discuss it and form their own opinion. The thing that is almost laughable is that if the movie were as frighteningly over the top as the critics say (e.g., actress Judy Davis is said to channel Mommie Dearest for her portrayal of Nancy Reagan), it's likely that the film would have fallen off the radar, forgotten like any number of TV movies of the week.
Which brings me to the second TV movie that sparked discussion. Saving Jessica Lynch (NBC). In a compact two hours, the film transformed Jessica Lynch from her earlier media portrait as a one-woman fighting machine to a quivering damsel in distress. The film cautiously flirted with why the blue-eyed, blond-haired Lynch became the poster child for saving America from the dark, amorphous evil that threatens our shores. A question, I'm sure, that Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson is asking herself. The African-American woman, who was captured along with Lynch and five others, was not only cut out of that media portrait, but now it turns out she will receive a lower disability benefit for her injuries than the celebrated Lynch. If Paranzino is looking for another online crusade, this sounds like a viable project.
I don't have much to say about The Elizabeth Smart Story (CBS), which aired opposite the Lynch telepic, except that it was a perfect example of why "ripped from the headlines" TV movies generally stink. Thrown together hastily, the story was told in a "this happened, then this, then this" fashion, lacking substance or nuance.
I used to jokingly tell people, "I watch TV so you don't have to." After last week's events, I'm imploring you to watch TV and all the media presented to you actively. If TV news is your only source of information (eeeek!), please, go online, go to that section of the newsstand where the alternative rags are, and take a peek. You don't have to agree with what you read, but if someone, anyone, tells you you can't, you shouldn't, it isn't "right" to seek those alternative views, wouldn't you worry? The Reagans, Saving Jessica Lynch, and The Elizabeth Smart Story might be just another round of trashy telepics -- but wouldn't you like to be the judge of that? I know I would.
For more on The Reagans, see Letters at 3AM