The Problem With 'Docudramas'

The recent flap over the CBS miniseries “The Reagans” — and the network’s decision not to broadcast it after loud protests by Reagan’s admirers — raised anew the question of just how far it is fair for TV documentaries to add uncomplimentary fictional material to their depictions of public figures.

In the case of “The Reagans,” CBS quickly discovered that the former president has a large bodyguard of loyal fans who are not about to put up with falsehoods about their hero. This lesson has now been learned, and will presumably protect Reagan, at least for a while. But other conservative personalities remain vulnerable. (And it is only they who are in danger from the liberals who produce such TV fodder — nobody now living is likely to see a documentary that contains any discreditable material about, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

So the larger issue remains: Can TV documentaries put obnoxious statements in the mouths of historical personalities who never uttered them? Oddly enough, as a problem relevant to American television, the question is only about 30 years old. Before that, TV documentaries were expected to, and by and large did, stick to established facts. But in the 1970s, partly in response to the irresistible temptation offered by Richard Nixon, the concept of the “docudrama” was developed — a new form in which historical facts were embellished with fictional episodes, allegedly in the service of a “higher truth.” By the early 1990s, Nixon was being depicted in film as an epithet-swearing drunk who suffered from hallucinations.

During the 1970s, I was a member of the National News Council, a (now defunct) bipartisan effort to induce a keener sense of responsibility in the media, and I warned against the baleful possibilities of such “docudramas.” But it was uphill work all the way.

For one thing, the deliberate mixture of political fiction with historical fact has a long and distinguished pedigree. Shakespeare’s historical plays are famously slanted against the Plantagenet kings of England, to serve the political purposes of the Tudors who succeeded them (including Shakespeare’s contemporary, Elizabeth I). Even my good friend Bill Buckley enjoys giving Dean Acheson and other real people walk-on parts in his novels, presumably to enhance their sense of authenticity. This has always struck me as rather like playing tennis without a net, but at least Bill doesn’t use these occasions to reflect badly on the people in question.

In addition, conservatives of a libertarian bent are inclined to argue that, since a docudrama is, or at least ought to be, known to indulge in bursts of pure fiction, it should be up to the viewer to beware. But as Max Frankel, a former executive editor of The New York Times, recently wrote, “Because it delivers so much fact-based news, genuine information and documentary imagery, television asks to be believed whenever it presents real people with real names in supposedly real circumstances. … To persuade people of the plausibility of an untruth is not only to lie, but to lie effectively. No claim of art or higher truth can justify such forgery.”

My sentiments exactly. If CBS wants to bad-mouth Ronald Reagan (let alone Richard Nixon), there are, inevitably, authentic negative aspects of their records to draw on. But deliberately inventing and broadcasting pure falsehoods about them is, or ought to be, beyond the pale.

Similarly with motion pictures involving contemporary events. We are going to be sorry, as a nation, when we discover in a few years that a large part of the American people genuinely believes that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was, or at least may have been, engineered by a conspiracy involving the CIA and the FBI, simply because a cheap opportunist named Oliver Stone peddled a movie demonstrating that “fact.” Free speech is a precious value, and perhaps in this case it ought to prevail. But we pay a heavy price for it indeed, when those in a position to manipulate it effectively are allowed to use it to damage honorable people, or to undermine confidence in our basic national institutions.