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Activists win a round in TV's culture war

In face of conservative ire, CBS pulls Reagan miniseries.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / November 6, 2003


It's a familiar drill in the culture wars: Break out the poster board, fire off letters to advertisers, and take to the airwaves, decrying a piece of art or entertainment that activists believe is inaccurate or beyond the pale of good taste. It's been tried with everything from "Murphy Brown" to "The Passion." What's so unusual is that, this time, it appears to have worked.

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Some say it's just a hard-nosed business decision in a cutthroat TV world. Others see a high-stakes war over issues of self-censorship, undue influence, and artistic license.

Either way, the unprecedented decision by CBS television to yank a controversial biopic on Ronald Reagan from public airwaves is spotlighting America's deep divide over conflicting values: political interest vs. "pure" art, free expression vs. corporate profits.

"This is really a major episode in the history of viewer activism against TV networks," says Cathy Newman, author of several books on protests against mass media and a professor of cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. "It is very rare that an entire network backs down to public pressure before broadcast."

Protests from conservatives based on leaked snippets of the script and film have been smoldering since Oct. 21, when news reports claimed the movie contained disrespectful, even false, depictions of the former president. CBS's announcement this week that it will not broadcast "The Reagans" as previously scheduled on Nov. 16 and 18 came after criticism snowballed, charging that the legacy of Ronald Reagan might be unfairly damaged.

But while the announcement that the miniseries would instead be shown on Showtime - with a subscriber base a fraction of CBS's viewership - has brought cries of victory by conservative activists, it also has raised red flags for others over concerns that creative license on TV will increasingly fall victim to attack by political ideologues.

"Are we as Americans looking into a future where dramatic representations are merely PR puff pieces that have met with approval of the people involved? If so, that's dangerous and propaganda," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "It is unseemly and uncomfortable that a project would get pulled in response to a constituency that has never even seen the film."

Democratic lawmakers reacted negatively to the decision Tuesday, with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota saying, "it smells of intimidation to me."

The massive conservative opposition included a website urging an advertiser boycott and public letters from Republican party leaders. If the move heralds a new political chill in Hollywood, then the cooling off has already begun. Nobody associated with the project - from the network to the producers - is talking publicly anymore. Carefully worded statements are available upon request.