Let's Spin One For the Gipper

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If there were a dog bites man channel (slogan: "news of the obvious, 24 hours a day!"), its top stories last week would have been HOLLYWOOD ACCUSED OF LIBERALISM and TV EXECUTIVES CRAVENLY BUCKLE UNDER PRESSURE. CBS canceled The Reagans, a four-hour mini-series, after conservative activists and pundits said it made Ronald Reagan out to be a ninny and a bigot. If one is to judge from selective quotes that made the press, the critics seemed to have a point. (The series reportedly had the President say about gay AIDS victims, "They that live in sin shall die in sin.") CBS claims it didn't cave but decided the production didn't meet the standards of a broadcast network. (To which we must reply: So how do you explain Baby Bob?)

G.O.P. Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia said the reversal proved "that the American people have a strong voice in deciding what is fair and appropriate." One problem: the American people — already equipped to exercise that voice with their remotes — hadn't seen The Reagans. Nor had its critics or defenders, since the controversial work — still being edited when it was yanked — did not yet exist. A few partisans saw leaked scripts; most based their attacks on quotes in the press.

But who needs facts? This was a debate carried to a Platonic level of abstraction, with little firsthand information to get in the way of the warring factions' preconceptions. For conservatives, the demon was a snobby, radical media-entertainment industry; for liberals, an overreaching, freedom-averse ruling party. ("Right-wing thought police declare Reagan, like dissent, off-limits," cried People for the American Way, as if this would lead inevitably to storm troopers forcing audiences to watch Fox News at gunpoint.)

We won't be able to judge The Reagans fairly — as if anyone really wants to — until it airs next year on Showtime, CBS's pay-cable corporate sibling. But we don't generally look to made-for-TV mini-series for ungilded truth. Remember, if not for scurrilous, insensitive, sensationalized TV movies about the (liberal, Democrat) Kennedys, we would have to clone five Michael Jacksons to fill the holes in the sweeps-stunt calendar. If Americans were going to depend on The Reagans as a history lesson — rather than as a campy Washington version of I Love the 80s — the Republic is doomed. And if you think CBS is interested in coddling only the left, I have three letters for you: JAG.

Does this make CBS innocent of liberal bias? No. CBS executives, after all, approved the script and oversaw production without thinking it would cause a fuss. They had wanted a love story about Nancy and Ronnie and — until news of conservative objections broke in the New York Times — they apparently thought that was more or less what they got. The irony is, they were trying to pander to Reagan's fans; they just proved spectacularly bad at it. But if CBS's executives were not floating in the warm, like-minded liberal womb of Hollywood, it might have occurred to them earlier that The Reagans might crease a few lapels at the Republican National Committee.

This was the real insult — not to Reagan but to his political heirs. By not seeking their blessing, CBS sent the message: You do not matter enough for us to fear you. Step on political operatives' Guccis, insult their mothers, but never, ever imply that they lack clout. By beating CBS, the network's foes helped themselves — online muckraker Matt Drudge modestly declared on MSNBC that the incident marked "the beginning of a second media century." But their defense of Reagan was at best contradictory and at worst insulting: 1) Reagan is a titan who saved America and freedom; 2) Reagan is a poor 92-year-old man with Alzheimer's. That is, he is either too great or too pitiable to be treated for what he is, a figure of history who belongs to all of us. Surely the spirit of a man who survived a shooting and stared down the Russkies can endure being portrayed by James Brolin.

Of course some objectors, like Reagan's family, acted out of genuine offense. But this, like most political battles, was mainly about one principle: winning. You fight to prove you can. To command deference. To convince people they're better off messing with the other guy's icons. For that matter, 'fess up, liberals: Were you truly offended that Rush Limbaugh made himself a bad role model and hypocrite by abusing OxyContin — or were you just happy that one of the other guys went down?

In the end, the Reagans skirmish was less about objective facts than subjective balance — which of Reagan's actions really mattered, which didn't, who gets credit, who gets blame — something historians will joust over for decades. No one with sense expects a mini-series to answer those questions, but if The Reagans' critics — and defenders — didn't invest it with more import than it deserved, there would be no advantage to be gained. Truth be told, little real damage can be done by a sensationalized mini-series or a network's cowardly cave-in. But opportunistic partisans have something in common with opportunistic TV executives. Neither group wants to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Also This Week: TIME has 10 questions for CBS Chairman Les Moonves