Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rewriting History

The History Channel, which usually devotes itself to 24 hour coverage of all things Hitler, is planning a mini-series called The Kennedys, produced by Joel Surnow. This has set off a harsh reaction from the people who worked with the Kennedy family and has also spurred an on-line appeal to the network to put the kibosh on the production.

The critics, including Theodore C. Sorensen, a former Kennedy adviser, say they have read the scripts for the project and that those contain errors of fact and emphasis. But like a similar controversy over a 2003 television film about Ronald Reagan, the dispute over the embryonic Kennedy series seems to say as much about the enduring place of the Kennedys as a battleground in the culture wars as it does about history itself.

The mini-series, called “The Kennedys,” is the brainchild of Joel Surnow, a creator of the Fox action show “24” and an outspoken political conservative. That raised alarms among Kennedy partisans when the History channel said in December that it would pick up the project.


Now a documentary filmmaker who makes no secret of his liberal politics is releasing an Internet video in which Kennedy scholars say the scripts offer a portrait of the president and his family that is, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a hatchet job.

“It was political character assassination,” the filmmaker, Robert Greenwald, said of the screenplays in a telephone interview. “It was sexist titillation and pandering, and it was turning everything into a cheap soap opera of the worst kind.” Mr. Greenwald said he is hoping that his 13-minute video and an accompanying petition, at, will take on lives of their own on the Web. A title card at the film’s conclusion reads: “Tell the History Channel I refuse to watch right-wing character assassination masquerading as ‘history.’ ”

Of course the conservatives will carry on that this is censorship, but if they do, let’s remind them that they got similarly exercised over The Reagans in 2003.

In that case the network canceled its planned broadcast after conservatives criticized the project — before it was shown, and based on scripts and portions of the film. The conservatives complained about depictions of Ronald Reagan as being insensitive to AIDS victims, and that Nancy Reagan was shown as being reliant on a personal astrologer. (“The Reagans” later played on Showtime, the cable channel.)

The difference this time is that the mini-series about the Kennedys is being made by a conservative and so therefore they have every right to smear a political family.