Twenty years ago, CBS faced a firestorm after a leaked script to the New York Times showed the network’s upcoming mini-series, The Reagans, was an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of the 40th President, then in the final months of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The first installment of The Reagans was set to air on CBS November 16, 2003. Acting quickly, Media Research Center President Brent Bozell sent a letter to 100 top television advertisers urging them to review the script before agreeing to advertise on the mini-series. “The Reagans appears to be a blatantly unfair assault on one of America’s greatest leaders,” Bozell warned on October 28.
That night, industry power player Merv Griffin, a friend of the Reagans, appeared on MSNBC’s Countdown to blast CBS as “cowardly” for its nasty attack:
Here is a man who is on his deathbed. He’s in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and a woman who has been sitting by the bedside there holding his hand for nine years. They can’t fight back….I think it’s the most cowardly thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t understand my own medium, which I’ve been in since the DuMont network. How can it be so cruel?
CBS executives agreed. On November 4, the network pulled the program from its schedule, and admitted in a statement: “We believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans.” Instead, the mini-series would air as a nearly three-hour movie on Showtime, an advertiser-free pay-cable network.
“Upon seeing the finished product, I felt the movie was quite biased against the Reagans,” CBS President Les Moonves explained at an event the next day. “It wasn’t the movie I promised the public.”
Liberals were furious. “Hallelujah! The Gipper is safe and the hated liberal media humbled. It’s a big victory for the ‘Elephant Echo Chamber,’ the unholy trinity of conservative talk radio, conservative Internet sites and the Republican National Committee,” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter sneered in a November 4 online column in which he slammed CBS for being “gutless” for shuttling the project to Showtime.
“Media analysts say CBS didn’t just blink, it buckled,” correspondent Jerry Bowen observed on the November 4 CBS Evening News. “James Brolin, who plays Reagan, wasn’t talking,” Bowen continued, “but his manager was.”
“We seem to be in a very oppressive era where they can censor something before they even see it,” Brolin’s manager, Jeff Wald, whined.
Over on NBC, Nightly News reporter Mike Taibbi seemed to agree: “Industry observers are asking today, which program and which network will be targeted next?”
“Did CBS knuckle under in the midst of a political fight,” anchor Brian Williams asked at the top of his CNBC show that night. Later in the program, he queried media critic Michael Wolff: “Do you believe what has happened here with this mini-series on CBS amounts to extortion?”
“Certainly capitulation,” Wolff replied, adding: “There is no group as well-organized as the right wing in America at this point in time.”
The next morning’s New York Times featured an editorial slamming CBS as “wrong to yield to conservative pressure,” likening Reagan fans to the Red menace: “His supporters credit him with forcing down the Iron Curtain, so it is odd that some of them have helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders.”
“Cowardly CBS unfair to viewers, not Reagans,” USA Today’s headline screamed. Media writer Robert Bianco opined: “If nothing else, this act of creative sabotage should put to rest the idea that the media are liberal.”
On the November 5 Good Morning America, co-host Charles Gibson suggested CBS’s decision represented a loss of artistic freedom. He asked Michael Reagan, “Your dad comes, came from the Hollywood community, and he knows what the issues of artistic freedom are. How do you think he’d react?”
On Today, NBC’s Katie Couric sarcastically wondered, “Is Ronald Reagan untouchable?” She asked Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager, if conservatives were a threat to free speech: “Does it bother you at all that one group in America, or many Americans, can basically exert this kind of political pressure and create an environment where, perhaps, free speech is not exercised.”
“Barbra Streisand said today marks a sad day for artistic freedom,” CBS Early Show host Harry Smith told Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson. “Do you think CBS allowed themselves to be bullied by this?”
The media’s premise appears to have been that CBS should have gone ahead and aired The Reagans even after their executives had determined that it was neither fair nor accurate, rather than “reward” conservatives by clearing it from their schedule.
And it was a hatchet job. After the (largely unchanged) film finally appeared on Showtime, even the Washington Post’s liberal TV critic Tom Shales panned it. “There’s enough nastiness and character assassination in the film — even without the line about AIDS — to make CBS look wise in pulling it off the network and foolish in having scheduled it in the first place,” Shales wrote in his November 30 review.
Lou Cannon — a veteran Washington Post reporter who had covered Reagan since the 1960s and wrote several biographies of the former President — told a panel discussion following the movie: “It’s hard to imagine a cartoon that could be that bad….It’s so bad, I don’t even know how they got there.” And Chris Wallace, who covered the Reagan White House for NBC News, told the New York Daily News, “I hated it….The portrayal of him was a laughable character.”
MRC Vice President Brent Baker gave his CyberAlert readers his own rundown on December 1, saying it “was every bit as awful as conservatives feared with a belittling portrayal of Ronald Reagan. The movie delivered a cartoonish Ronald Reagan, played by James Brolin, who read words fed to him by others, seemed capable only of uttering short quips about ‘commies’ and ‘big government’ and followed the orders of others — mainly an all-controlling Nancy Reagan, played by Judy Davis, who came across every bit as what rhymes with witch.”
Even though the finished product proved conservatives were correct to object, angry liberals clung to the notion that, somehow, the First Amendment required CBS to air a bad and biased movie. “Many people bemoaned what happened as a real loss for free speech in this country,” CBS’s Katie Couric challenged former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan on the December 1 Today. “Do you think they [CBS] buckled under pressure?”
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.