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Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2003 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Lights! Camera! Fudge!?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Of course the coming CBS miniseries "The Reagans" will be biased, make Ronald and Nancy look like kooks and idiots, and over-emphasize President Reagan's foibles, shortchange his accomplishments and distort his politics, values and character.

What would you expect from Tinseltown? "The Reagans" — a two-part "biopic" airing Nov. 16 and 18 — was written and produced by a typical gang of Hollywood liberals who either know nothing about conservatism or despise everything about it.

But there's also a nonpartisan reason the Reagan miniseries will likely contain silly distortions of reality. "The Reagans" is an old-fashioned TV docudrama.

And docudramas — movies that purport to tell the true stories of real people and real events — are, by their very nature, misleading and inaccurate. No matter how "inspired by actual events" they are, they can never be trusted to tell the "true" truth about anything or anybody.

I know this from experience. In 1979 I worked briefly for CBS in Los Angeles as an "editor" in the now-extinct Docudrama Unit of the Program and Practices Department. My main job was to verify that scripts accurate enough for CBS to honestly advertise them as "true stories."

After my comrades and I in what we jokingly called "The Truth Squad" did our independent research, we met with writers and producers to work out our factual differences. On paper, this was a reasonable way for fallible, subjective human beings to arrive at an honest approximation of the truth. But this was planet Hollywood.

At the time, CBS, NBC and ABC were obscenely profitable, government-protected oligopolies. It won't surprise anyone to know that CBS, a network whose news division employed the troika of Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid and Daniel Schorr, was interested less in accuracy than avoiding the wrath of the FCC — and raking-in ever more profit.

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CBS knew that being able to market a movie about boxer Jack Dempsey or the "Atlanta Child Murderer" as "the true story" guaranteed higher ratings and therefore generated more ad revenue.

But there was a little problem. To prevent what they considered dull movies — that is, overly accurate ones — network programmers encouraged scriptwriters to liberally use "dramatic license" to juice the drama.

Dramatic license is an inherently confusing device that permits serious docudrama makers and crazed history-spinners like Oliver Stone to fudge facts and do all kinds of potentially nefarious things. They can invent fictional characters, expunge real characters, create composite characters, rearrange chronology, simplify complex historical or socioeconomic processes and turn gray moral issues into black and white.

As the Reagan docudrama apparently will prove yet again, Hollywood's ideologically unbalanced creative community regularly abuses dramatic license to make saints and heroes out of people they like and monsters and fools out of people they don't.

This is why most movies about real people and events are filled with cardboard Hollywood stereotypes — greedy businessmen, bad cops, sex-crazed fundamentalist preachers, good liberals, evil conservatives, etc.

It's also why Ronald Reagan's amazing real story — like so many other great ones about the victims of communism, union violence and people who don't march to the drum of the Religious Left — never stands a chance of being told fairly or accurately by Hollywood.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald