Friday, September 08, 2006

Partisan double standards, and fictionalizing for profit

The current flap over the upcoming ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11 is a textbook case of partisan hypocrisy. And that label applies to liberal and conservatives alike.

Let’s start with the liberals -- not all liberals, of course; I am referring to activists and bloggers -- since they’re the ones who are ticked off at ABC. Their outrage is directed at various fictionalizations of the 9/11 saga that the Hollywood types have either dreamed up or improvised. These scenes apparently depict Bill Clinton’s national security team as being less than vigilant about the growing threat of Osama bin Laden during the late ‘90s. Infuriated liberal activists are currently demanding that ABC either shelve those scenes -- or cancel the five-hour miniseries in its entirety. (And a new report in Variety says that outright cancellation is still possible.)

Looking at this case on the merits, it’s clear that the liberal camp does have a legitimate beef; even ABC has admitted taking some dramatic liberties with the known facts. But I don’t recall the liberal camp acting with similar concern back in 2003, when a CBS docudrama about Ronald Reagan was planning to take some dramatic liberties in its depiction of the former president.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Liberals thought that the Reagan show should air just as the miniseries producers intended it to air -- in the name of freedom of speech. And when conservative activists, led by the Republican National Committee, went after CBS and demanded (in the end, successfully) that the network dump the show, liberals were outraged that there could be such an assault on free expression.

People for the American Way railed in a press release about “right-wing thought police,” and Barbra Streisand (whose husband was playing Reagan) wrote on Nov. 4, 2003, “I don’t believe Democrats often, if ever, try to muscle the First Amendment like this....This (conservative effort) is censorship, pure and simple.” But now that liberals are going after ABC for taking similar liberties with Clinton, I don’t hear her, or other famed Friends of Bill, sounding any concerns about “censorship.”

Most conservatives, however, are also selective in their outrage. They don’t seem very concerned that the Hollywood types (whom they generally dislike) have filmed fictionalized scenes that depict a former president in a negative light. In fact, they’ve barely said anything at all, content instead to chuckle at the liberals’ discomfiture.

Yet the scene was very different in October 2003, when they were so outraged that Hollywood had filmed fictionalizeed scenes depicting their favorite former president in a negative light. Back then, when a major network acted in this fashion, it was viewed as fresh evidence of liberal-media perfidy.

As Ed Morrow of the National Review said, “Attempts to distort our history must be resisted. Historical truth is simply too valuable to be made a plaything for biased filmmakers rewriting it to fit their politics.” And Ed Gillespie, the Republican party chairman, said on MSNBC that “there’s infotainment and docudrama and reality TV and the lines between fact and fiction blur. That’s fine when it’s entertainment, but when you’re talking about...the Reagan legacy formation, I think that it’s important that we get things right.”

Where’s the plea from Gillespie today, demanding that ABC “gets things right” about the Clinton legacy?

Actually, some conservatives have spotted the double standard, and they have copped to it. Commentator Jonah Goldberg: “A pox on everybody...(C)onservatives howled in outrage (in 2003), and got CBS to drop it. Why shouldn’t liberals have a go at the same thing?” James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal website wrote the other day, “The Clintonites may have a point here. A few years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot, we were happy to see CBS scotch The Reagans.”

I could just leave the issue here, having made the argument about partisan hypocrisy. But that’s not the root problem. Actually, it was Gillespie, in the service of his partisan argument, who identified the root problem when he mentioned the rise of infotainment and the blurring between fact and fiction.

The networks have opened themselves up to these kinds of partisan attacks by embracing the docudrama format, apparently in the belief that mass audiences aren’t interested in history unless actors read the lines and scripts contain the dramatic “beats” that work best between commercial breaks. There once was a time when vital issues, such as the road to 9/11, would have been explored at length in news-division documentaries that aired in prime time -- I can remember NBC White Paper and CBS Reports; Edward R. Murrow came earlier -- but that format was not deemed sufficiently profitable, so it was dropped.

But now that the networks, in the pursuit of ratings and ad dollars, have embraced a format that necessarily mixes fact and fiction, they have in a sense reaped the whirlwind -- opening themselves up to attack from whichever partisan camp feels aggrieved about the fiction element. One Hollywood producer laments to Variety, "Starting with The Reagans, everything is now political. It's become so divisive and nasty. It's very sad."

Actually, what’s really sad is the networks’ assumption that, in our polarized era, they can somehow take liberties with history in the pursuit of profits -- and not get any grief about it.