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Recalling Reagan

Paula Martinac | November 25, 2003

When CBS, under pressure from the Republican right, made the unprecedented move of canceling the miniseries The Reagans, freedom of expression took a nosedive. Clearly, this indicates a need to redouble the effort against political censorship in this country. But that effort will also require human-rights groups, including those in the gay movement, to question if their own tactics impinge on personal freedoms.

These are dismal days for progressives, with conservatives controlling all three branches of government and much of the news media, too. Many recent reports on the third-quarter economic growth, for example, downplayed or buried economists' concerns about continued unemployment. Ironically, a week after the announcement that economic growth was a "mission accomplished," a newspaper chain owned by conservative mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, one of the major funders of right-wing media, announced plans to lay off 4 percent of its workforce - because of the poor economy.

In this political atmosphere, one respite for the left is popular culture, which remains relatively unaffected by the conservative onslaught. Indeed, much non-news-related TV programming is socially moderate and sometimes even left-leaning, providing just about the only "checks and balances" we have anymore. While abortion rights are being chipped away and gay couples are set to become the Willie Hortons of 2004, progressives can take some small comfort in watching The West Wing or discussing the significance of having several programs on television with the word "queer" in the title.

So CBS's action came as a big jolt. It took only two weeks from when New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg first disclosed details of the script of The Reagans - part of which depicted our 40th president's inaction during the early HIV/AIDS years - to the actual cancellation of the program. In the wake of CBS's decision, Rutenberg told National Public Radio that he was astonished by the swiftness of the cause-and-effect outcome: (a) he reported on the miniseries, (b) the right wing mobilized for a network boycott, and (c) CBS caved.

Of course, the right has flirted heavily with censorship before, but until now, its efforts have generally been in vain - for example, the campaign to get TV stations not to air the coming-out episode of Ellen. Obviously, these censor wanna-bes needed the "right" subject to succeed, and a biopic about a popular ex-president who is dying was the one that clicked. The precedent CBS has now set could easily embolden groups to make other politically motivated demands on TV programming.

Indeed, some critics of the Reagan TV movie say they aren't satisfied that CBS sold the miniseries to its Viacom sister station, Showtime - which Fox TV host Steve Doocy recently dubbed "the station that shows dirty pictures" - even though that network is available by subscription only. The Reagan "defenders" vow to continue fighting until the miniseries is canned altogether or runs with "This is a fictional account" scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens.

Forget that no biopic ever presumes to be a documentary; and forget that all biopics - and indeed virtually all movies inspired by historical events - contain elements of fiction. Even if it takes some artistic license, "a film can be accurate without being true," historian William E. Leuchtenberg wrote about the movie All the President's Men. But that may be too subtle a point for the country's literal-minded right wing to grasp.

In what seems like a more appropriate response to the Reagan miniseries than getting it yanked off the air, conservative filmmakers have plans to make a documentary called The Real Reagans. This film will bear the GOP stamp of approval and air sometime during 2004 - conveniently timed to coincide with the election. It will, I'm sure, be a lovefest to the Gipper.

And what if it glosses over - or, more likely, ignores - Reagan's lack of response to AIDS, infuriating all of us who lost friends and family to the disease? If that happens, I hope the gay community will remember how incensed we've been at this recent censorship and refrain from re-adopting the "Stop Dr. Laura" tack of several years ago. In that case, activists tried to get the TV talk show either axed or revamped along gay-acceptable lines. But in a society that values free expression, that's the wrong approach; we should instead give interviews, publish op-eds, write letters to the editor, or make other films that bring what we know about Reagan's deplorable AIDS record to light.

Ultimately, censorship is an infringement of someone else's rights, whether it comes from the right or the left. Let's use our voices and our keyboards to tell CBS that its recent move has put the freedoms of all Americans at risk. c

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

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