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Free speech or twisting of history?

LAST WEEK, after a barrage of intense criticism from conservative talk show hosts, activists, and politicians, CBS announced that it was canceling the scheduled broadcast of the controversial miniseries "The Reagans." (The four-hour docudrama will air next year on Showtime, a pay cable network.) Is this a blow to free speech or a blow for decency? Much of the reaction has been predictably split along party lines: rejoicing on the right, hand-wringing on the left. Fox News analyst Liz Trotta gushed that the cancellation was "a triumph for America," while Washington Monthly commentator Joshua Micah Marshall lamented on his weblog, "Wake me up when we're back in America." (There have been exceptions: In Salon.com, the liberal Joe Conason blasted "conservative commissars who want to censor any negative images of Reagan from network TV" but also harshly criticized the movie for tampering with history -- while on Fox News, William McGowan, a strong critic of left-wing bias in the media, called the backlash against CBS "political correctness on the right.")

Those associated with the miniseries claim that it is not a slam but a nuanced portrayal of the former first couple. Some of the less flattering aspects of its portrayal of the former first couple -- President Reagan is depicted as often inattentive and uninformed and Nancy Reagan as controlling and overly interested in astrology -- jibe with accounts by Reagan supporters.

However, CBS gave itself a black eye by spicing up fact with disparaging, ideologically driven fiction. Notoriously, the miniseries contained a scene in which Nancy Reagan pleaded with her husband to do something to help AIDS sufferers, only to have him reply, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Playwright Elizabeth Egloff, who wrote the final version of the script, admitted there was no record of Reagan saying anything of the kind but argued that "we know he ducked the issue over and over again."

Comments from the stars of the miniseries seemed to confirm the impression that it would be a hit piece with a political agenda. James Brolin, who plays Reagan (and who is married to Barbra Streisand, known for her left-of-center politics), was quoted as saying that maybe Americans could "learn something" from the film about being more skeptical of their leaders. Judy Davis, the British actress who plays Nancy Reagan -- and is a left-wing activist -- sounded a similar note: "If this film can help create a bit more questioning in the public about the direction America has been going in since the 1970s . . . it will be doing a service."

A network has every right to make a critical biopic about Reagan or anyone else and to use a movie to push whatever political agenda it wants. That's what freedom of speech is all about -- though, ironically, it's liberals who have argued that broadcast networks, which get free access to the airwaves, have certain responsibilities to the public. One hopes that would include politically balanced programming and a reasonably accurate representation of history.

But a network should also know that when it makes a movie that is seen as attacking a popular public figure, it should be ready for a backlash. Imagine how the black community would react if a network were about to air a made-for-TV miniseries about Martin Luther King Jr. that contained made-up dialogue that made King sound like a communist sympathizer -- particularly if this movie was made by people with right-wing politics.

True, the spectacle of a network caving to political pressure and canceling a movie is disturbing. But, as media commentator Howard Kurtz has noted in The Washington Post, "the reason the pressure got intolerable for CBS is that the conservatives' complaints struck a nerve with the public" -- in part because of the sympathy factor, since Ronald Reagan is dying of Alzheimer's and Nancy Reagan is caring for him. The public has a right to express its disapproval, even through boycotts.

As often happens, double standards come into play. Conservative pundits such as Bill O'Reilly of Fox News decried the boycott organized by gay rights groups against Dr. Laura Schlessinger's television show as a threat to free speech. Now they are praising the action against CBS as a legitimate expression of popular anger. Most of the liberals who are appalled by the cancellation of "The Reagans" probably supported the boycott of Dr. Laura's advertisers. It all depends on whose ox is being gored. But then, what else is new?

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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