Grassroots Force CBS to Cancel 'The Reagans'

“We had promised the public that we would do a fair version of the Reagans’ life,” CBS President Les Moonves told a crowd at Yale November 5. The New Haven Register reported Moonves’s speech, in which he explained his decision to pull the miniseries “The Reagans” from its scheduled broadcast beginning November 16. “Upon seeing the finished product, I felt the movie was quite biased against the Reagans,” he said. Moonves announced that CBS would move the film from its broadcast network to Showtime, a premium cable channel also owned by CBS parent company Viacom, which has a much smaller audience. Conservatives and Republicans and at least one Democratic senator, however, did not find CBS’s move so much a principled act as a perplexing one. If the movie was “quite biased” as Moonves conceded, why would they air it at all? “I think it’s sort of a bait-and-switch,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. “If it’s unsuitable for CBS to run it, I’d think it would be unsuitable for Showtime.” Conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) was less diplomatic when asked for his opinion by HUMAN EVENTS. “They should flush it down the toilet,” he said. Major Victory But forcing CBS to cancel its plans to broadcast “The Reagans” on November 16 and 18, during the all-important ratings “sweeps,” was a major victory for grassroots conservatives and conservative media outlets. It demonstrated that the establishment media may no longer have the power to blatantly distort the public image or the message of conservative or Republican leaders. It also demonstrated the historical sticking power of President Reagan’s reputation as one of America’s greatest statesmen. The victory is especially telling considering what CBS was forced to give up in cancelling “The Reagans.” Not only must the network eat the $9 million it cost to produce the miniseries, but also, by removing the much-hyped program from its primetime lineup during the mid-November ratings “sweeps,” the network left itself with a four-hour programming void it is unlikely to adequately fill, and which could hurt its advertising revenue for months to come. CBS’s cave on “The Reagans” may signal the beginning of an era in which control of the media is too widely scattered to permit dominance by a small liberal elite intent on putting a left-wing spin on everything from politics to American history. Internet journalist Matt Drudge, whose Drudge Report website receives roughly eight million visits per day, began the controversy October 21 when he obtained and published portions of the script for “The Reagans.” Drudge revealed, for example, that the script had Reagan in one scene—during the Iran-Contra scandal—nervously quoting from the Bible’s book of Revelations, and then fatuously declaring, “I am the anti-Christ.” The miniseries also depicted Reagan angrily cursing and taking God’s name in vain several times—something that would have been uncharacteristic of him, according to those close to him. The script also depicted Reagan declaring that AIDS patients deserve to die for their sins: “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” CBS was forced to concede that Reagan did not say this. Reagan was also portrayed referring to his wife, Nancy, as “Madame Fuhrer.” Nancy, for her part, is shown slapping 5-year-old daughter Patti in yet another scene. The script strongly suggested that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s as early as 1984. Drudge’s piecemeal revelations of these controversial script items created a brushfire among talk radio hosts, cable news commentators, and ordinary citizens. Thousands of Internet-savvy conservatives reacted energetically, sending e-mails and faxes, making phone calls to CBS and parent company Viacom, and signing and circulating online petitions. “It’s the beginning of a second media century,” Drudge said November 3 on MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country.” “It’s much more of a people-driven media, and I say that not lightly. It was the Internet, it was talk radio, it was cable that put pressure on CBS, and heretofore, there’s never been this kind of pressure applied to one of the big titans, one of the big three.” Conservatives on Capitol Hill voiced approval of this popular uprising against the media. “I’m glad people spoke out, said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.). “I think it’s healthy that there are enough media outlets that the citizens of America could find out about it before it came out.” As thousands made their voices heard defending President Reagan—for whom 54.5 million Americans voted in 1984, more than any other President in history—public figures came to Reagan’s defense as well. Television legend Merv Griffin got the word out about the Hollywood buzz on CBS’s miniseries project in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” as early as July 22. “There are people who have read the script and already have leaked it that it is trashing him,” he said. Griffin returned to the show November 2, at the height of the controversy, and declared, “To put Nancy Reagan through this at the end of Ronald Reagan’s life, just, it seems despicable. And you know something else that is despicable is what they are doing to Ronald Reagan, when he can’t [fight] back.” Conservative commentators such as Pat Buchanan, who served as Reagan’s communications director, and Michael Reagan, the President’s son, defended Reagan fiercely (see the cover and cover box stories in last week’s HUMAN EVENTS). Liberals felt differently. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-La.) told HUMAN EVENTS that she did not like the idea of such stringent self-restraint by the network, just because of a group of vocal opponents. “I’ve never heard of a show that’s been pulled off before it even ran,” said Landrieu. “What worries me about this is that before the show can even get up, a particular group of people have threatened—it could be inhibiting free speech or expression.” Asked whether, as a public figure, she would want her supporters to stop a defamatory movie about her, Landrieu replied, “If the show is interesting to people and they want to watch it, then it should probably be on the air.” Rep. John Dingell (D.-Mich.), who served during both of Reagan’s terms in office, even took the miniseries as an occasion to pile on the former president in a press statement. “Allow me to share with you some of my recollections of the Reagan years,” Dingell wrote. He cited “$640 Pentagon toilets seats,” “ketchup as a vegetable,” “firing striking air traffic controllers,” “financing an illegal war in Nicaragua,” and “Star Wars” as Reagan’s memorable accomplishments in office. Roberts, on the other hand, pointed out Reagan’s inability to defend himself while suffering from Alzheimer’s. “I think it’s just in such bad taste,” he said. “It’s crass. Not only is it inaccurate, not only a disservice to those who watch it except for those who just want to have a prejudice against President Reagan, I think it’s also a very crass treatment of a man who’s suffering under the circumstances, and of his family.”