Media highlighted conservative complaints about less-than-flattering portrayal of Reagan in 2003 biopic, offer little coverage of ABC's 9-11 miniseries, reportedly riddled with falsehoods

Major media outlets offered intense coverage of conservative complaints about a 2003 miniseries on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, ultimately leading CBS to pull the show from its broadcast network. The media have thus far not provided the same level of coverage to an ABC miniseries about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that reportedly contains outright falsehoods and distortions.

The muted response by the media to ABC's decision to air The Path to 9/11 -- a miniseries about events leading up to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- stands in stark contrast to the reception the media gave another highly touted political miniseries: CBS' 2003 biopic The Reagans. While The Path to 9/11 appears to contain outright falsehoods and distortions, The Reagans generated a huge amount of news coverage, and was ultimately pulled from the network's schedule, impelled by conservative outrage over its portrayal of President Ronald Reagan, which they claimed was unfair.

A two-part series scheduled to air November 16 and 18, 2003 -- right in the middle of November sweeps -- The Reagans starred James Brolin and Judy Davis as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. However, about a month before the broadcast, portions of the leaked draft script were published by the Drudge Report website and The New York Times. Subsequently, the miniseries sparked a furor among conservatives, who saw the movie as presenting an unbalanced portrait of the Reagans.

While CBS' controversial decision to pull the show was hailed by the right as a victory of the conservative grassroots over the liberal mainstream media, in fact it is was the mainstream media itself that precipitated the furor. On October 21, 2003, The New York Times ran a 1,600-word article on the front page of its Arts section about the CBS miniseries and the concern among Reagan supporters about the movie's allegedly liberal tilt. Although the Drudge Report had reported on the CBS movie a day earlier, Drudge acknowledged in a November 3, 2003, interview on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, “The New York Times, in all fairness, was the first one to go out ahead of it.”

In the weeks that followed, The Reagans -- and the conservative uproar over it -- was headline news. Though conservative bloggers and advocacy groups fed the controversy, it was the mainstream media -- particularly the New York Times -- that made it a national story. After the Times' October 21 piece, the issue became, in the word used by many articles, a “firestorm,” garnering stories in dozens of newspapers and both broadcast and cable television.

A Nexis search for “CBS,” “miniseries,” and "The Reagans" from October 21, 2003, to November 4, 2003 -- the date CBS announced that it would pull the miniseries from its schedule -- yields 340 hits from all three major television networks, the cable news channels, and dozens of major print publications. Examining only major newspapers, the total number of hits that mention the The Reagans is 73. Limiting the search to just The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times yields six total stories over that same two-week period. A search of the major broadcast and cable news networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- during the same span, generates a total of 74 hits mentioning The Reagans. Whichever way you slice it, the miniseries was a major story.

By contrast, a Nexis search from August 20 to September 6 for “ABC” and "The Path to 9/11" yields only one mention of the controversy surrounding the ABC miniseries in a major U.S. newspaper (in The New York Times) and two mentions on cable news shows (the September 1 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann and the September 6 edition of CNN's The Situation Room).

The heavy coverage of The Reagans, fueled by right-wing grassroots activity but validated by mainstream media attention, had its effect. At first, CBS announced that some lines of dialogue that had generated protest would be cut. Then on November 4, almost two weeks before the miniseries was scheduled to air, the network announced that it was canceling The Reagans because “it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience.” Instead, the network moved the production to premium-cable network Showtime, like CBS a division of Viacom. All three broadcast networks featured stories about the series on their nightly newscasts when it was canceled on November 4; NBC covered it on the Today show, as did ABC on Good Morning America.

The show eventually aired on Showtime as a three-hour movie on November 30, 2003, followed by a discussion titled, “Controversy: The Reagans,” in which the film was analyzed by a panel including conservative activist Linda Chavez, former Reagan aide Martin Anderson, liberal activist Hilary Rosen, Carl Anthony (one of the film's producers), television journalist Marvin Kalb, and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

Despite the intense coverage, the “controversy” over the Reagan film was driven not by factual inaccuracies; a major complaint among conservatives was that the film was insufficiently laudatory toward Reagan. This sentiment was enough to generate coverage from major news outlets. Rutenberg wrote in the article that kicked off the firestorm:

“The Reagans,” according to the final version of the script obtained by The New York Times, does give Mr. Reagan most of the credit for ending the cold war and paints him as an exceptionally gifted politician and a moral man who stuck to his beliefs, often against his advisers' urgings.

But there is no mention of the economic recovery or the creation of wealth during his administration, key accomplishments to his supporters. Nor does it show him delivering the nation from the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years, as his supporters say he did.

The details the producers do choose to stress -- like Mr. Reagan's moments of forgetfulness, his supposed opinions on AIDS and gays, his laissez-faire handling of his staff members -- often carry a disapproving tone.

In other words, the film portrayed both positive and negative features of Reagan's personality and term in office. Apparently for this, the film was “controversial,” and Republicans were sought out to offer their condemnations. Rutenberg's article would provide the template for much of the coverage; he went on to write:

“The Reagans” takes sides on plenty of issues and incidents that are vigorously contested by biographers, and some that are historically questionable. In one early scene Mr. Reagan's talent agent, Lew Wasserman, tells him that his anti-Communist activism is hurting his career. “People know you're an informer for the blacklist,” Mr. Wasserman says. Mr. Reagan replies, “I've never called anybody a Commie who wasn't a Commie.”

Mr. Reagan was long suspected of supplying names to the Hollywood blacklist but denied it. F.B.I. records show he cooperated with agents investigating communism in Hollywood, but historians disagree about whether his assistance was of any real significance.

Here, Rutenberg characterized the fact that Reagan was an informer for the FBI in its efforts to find communist sympathizers in Hollywood -- something Rutenberg himself reports is proven by FBI records -- as the miniseries “taking sides,” and offers disagreement among historians as to “whether his assistance was of any real significance” as though that question bears on whether Reagan was or was not an informant.

This is just one example of how a miniseries that portrayed Reagan in a light that was less than heroic became so controversial that CBS succumbed to pressure from conservatives and pulled the series from its broadcast network.

The contrast with the case of The Path to 9/11 seems obvious. In the film about terrorism, the filmmakers reportedly have invented events -- such as the fantasy that at one point a CIA agent and a group of Afghani tribesmen had a house where Osama bin Laden was staying surrounded but were called off by Clinton officials -- that no one, not even the Bush administration's defenders, claims to have occurred.

This is not the first time that the Disney corporation, which owns ABC, has been involved in a controversy over a political film. In 2004, the corporation ordered its subsidiary Miramax not to distribute Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11. As Time magazine reported at the time, “Moore says that his lawyer was told by Disney CEO Michael Eisner that distributing it would harm the company's negotiations for favorable treatment for its Florida theme parks from that state's governor, one Jeb Bush.”