Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ave, Annika!

Annika links to my Konglish post and sends a few hits my way. Muchas gracias, muchacha.

Background: a new miniseries titled "The Path to 9/11" begins airing Sunday night in the US. Bill Clinton and others from his administration are fighting mad about the portrayal of the former president and some of his cronies. The series apparently implies that Clinton was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal to deal effectively with the mounting terrorist threat. Annika rightly notes that the American left isn't exactly without sin in this regard:

It seems to me that the only objections Democrats have raised are that it's allegedly misleading, [inaccurate], and fictional. The truth is, they don't like the way it portrays Clinton. So fucking what. Since when have ex-presidents been immune from criticism? If they don't like it, why don't they do their own movie about how bad Bush is?

Oh that's right, they already did. It won the Palme d'Or.

And another thing. Isn't it government censorship when a bunch of Senators and Congressmen threaten ABC's license if they don't pull a tv show because of its political content? Isn't that prior restraint?

Annika's point is well taken, but the situation's rather complicated. Perhaps this didn't come through because of the deliberately poor English, but my Konglish post was trying to make two points at the same time:

1. Clinton and cronies should shut up. As with the Muhammad cartoons, this is a matter of free speech.

2. ABC's execs did a stupid thing when they complicated matters by claiming that the miniseries is primarily factual: "We've portrayed the essence of the truth of these events."

In the comments following Annika's post, Skippy writes:

Maybe it's me and I'm not remembering this correctly because I drink a lot, but didn't the GOP make the very same noises not too very long ago about a TV movie about President Reagan?

Yes, indeed, and the Reagan miniseries was pulled from national network TV and set to broadcast on the cable channel Showtime, as this Washington Times article notes. That article (written in November 2003) cites reasons for why folks on the right were against the series, and why they objected to its being aired on Showtime:

[CBS's reasons for pulling the series from national TV do not ring] true among those who steadfastly maintain the series omitted or distorted historical facts about Mr. Reagan's presidency while sullying his personal life.

"Misleading a smaller audience of viewers is not a noble response to the legitimate concerns raised about this program," said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) yesterday.

Obviously, Reagan supporters were concerned about the issues of factuality and balance, which is why they agitated against the film to begin with. But why were they concerned? Probably because they wanted their hero portrayed in a more positive light. Phooey, say I. Whatever one might think of Reagan, he wasn't sacrosanct. If a studio wanted to make a Reagan "mockumentary" (like "This is Spinal Tap") that would portray the old man as a debauched coke fiend who spent his days under a pile of naked, twenty-something women, I'd have no trouble with its being aired-- furthermore, I'm pretty sure that Reagan fans have a sufficient grasp on reality to realize that such a work could only be fictional.

The Times article also had this to say:

[Matt Drudge] added, "If they went and did a Clinton story, there would be just as much outrage, but I think we're safe to say [CBS President] Les Moonves is not ordering the Clinton saga in any version at this hour."

But CBS was adamant it was not bowing to public pressure, claiming that their decision "is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."

In both TV-movie cases (Reagan and Clinton)-- as with the case of the Muhammad cartoons-- the overriding principle should be (and should have been) freedom of speech. This is fiction-- get over it.

CBS didn't go ahead with a Clinton saga, but ABC obviously did. My Konglish post went on to wonder whether Clinton might have a point-- not because of Clinton's opinion of the miniseries, but because of what an ABC exec said: "We've portrayed the essence of the truth of these events." That's troubling to me. In a sense, it legitimizes Clinton's complaint.

If ABC had said something like, "Pull the stick out of your ass-- it's only fiction," the channel could have protected itself from the incoming Dem publicity onslaught. It's true that ABC also mentioned "dramatic license," but they would have made things easier for themselves by sticking to the "it's fiction" line and leaving it at that. By adopting such a stance, ABC would have obliged the left to talk about the drama's supposed factuality, but the left would have been unable to accuse the filmmakers of wanting to create a factual portrayal of events leading up to 9/11. Without the ability to do that, arguments from the left would have sounded hollow.

Upshot: the drama should run, but ABC's execs would do well to stop adding fuel to the fire.

In the meantime, assuming the drama does air, I can see this as ammunition for lefties (especially Kossacks and Atrioids) who'll once again start their "WHAT liberal media?" chant. "ABC caved in to the right," they'll say.

If the folks on the right want to contend that the Clinton drama is mostly factual and should therefore be aired for that reason, that claim to factuality will be seized upon by folks on the left. As it stands, though, it doesn't appear to be the righties who are making that claim: leftie ABC is making the claim.*

This gives the right some breathing room. If I were working PR for the right, I'd raise my eyebrows in a show of innocence and say, "Hey, what's all the fuss about a little skit?" If the left pointed out that public outcry from the right led to the pulling of the Reagan miniseries, I'd note that (1) the series did air on Showtime, and (2) CBS made the decision-- it didn't have to cave.

Neither the left nor the right looks all that impressive to me, given how closely their behaviors mirror each other. Clinton should keep silent about the upcoming miniseries (or take Annika's suggestion and sue), but the right should have done the same about the Reagan miniseries.

*Then again, I haven't read enough rightie blogs to know whether anyone on the right is arguing that the drama is factually accurate. If they are, it's to their detriment.


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