Flashback: Merv Griffin Blasts CBS as 'Cowardly' on Reagan Movie

Word came Sunday that entertainment industry titan Merv Griffin passed away at age 82. Back in October of 2003, when CBS planned to air a derogatory mini-series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, The Reagans, Griffin went onto MSNBC to denounce CBS as “cowardly” for belittling Ronald Reagan and distorting his record when the former President (who would die eight months later) was on his deathbed. Thanks to controversy over the movie, fueled in part by a letter from the MRC to all advertisers urging them to review the movie before placing ads and to consider what their customers would think of their support for such a disparaging portrait, CBS moved the movie to its Showtime pay cable movie channel.

An excerpt from the October 29, 2003 MRC CyberAlert:

Veteran television host and producer Merv Griffin, a long-time friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, appeared Tuesday night [October 28, 2003] on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann and used the opportunity to blast CBS for “the most cowardly thing I’ve ever heard” over the reported tone and content of CBS’s upcoming mini-series, The Reagans. “It’s a cowardly act,” he charged, asking: “Is that what the 'C’ stands for in CBS?”

Griffin, the owner of the Beverly Hilton who created the Wheel of Fortune game show after many years as host of his own daytime Merv Griffin Show, relayed how Nancy Reagan feels “hurt” by the distorted portrayal.

Griffin laid into CBS for denigrating the Reagans when they “can’t fight back” since Ronald Reagan is “on his deathbed” and Nancy Reagan is taking care of him all day. An angry Griffin asserted:

“Here is a man who is on his deathbed. He’s in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and a woman who has been sitting by the bedside there holding his hand for nine years, they can’t fight back. From what I’ve read, I have not seen the film, I have not read the script, but I have certainly seen enough excerpts from it in the promos. I mean it’s, I think it’s cowardly. I think it’s the most cowardly thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t understand my own medium which I’ve been in since the Dumont network. How can it be so cruel? That’s not, from what I’ve read in the scenes, that’s not Nancy and the President at all.”

But MSNBC delivered a cowardly act itself. As Griffin spoke, MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth noticed, on-screen text, below some historic video of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, read: “30 Members of Reagan Admin. Spent Time in Prison.”

That was the fourth an final information line MSNBC placed on screen toward the start of Griffin’s appearance by satellite from California. The previous three:

- “A U.S. Aircraft Carrier is Named After Reagan”

- “Nancy Reagan Refused to Live in CA Governor’s Mansion”

- “Reagan Was Named Spokesman for General Electric in 1950s”

Showtime ran the movie on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. An excerpt from my Monday, December 1, 2003 MRC CyberAlert about what I saw and several very negative newspaper reviews:

I spent three hours -- two hours and 53 minutes to be exact -- on Sunday night watching The Reagans on Showtime so I could spare you the pain: The movie, originally produced as a two-part mini-series for CBS, was every bit as awful as conservatives feared with a belittling portrayal of Ronald Reagan. The movie delivered a cartoonish Ronald Reagan, played by James Brolin, who read words fed to him by others, seemed capable only of uttering short quips about "commies" and "big government" and followed the orders of others -- mainly an all-controlling Nancy Reagan, played by Judy Davis, who came across every bit as what rhymes with witch.

Before the showing of the movie, Matt Blank, Chairman and CEO of the Showtime Networks, delivered a condescending introductory message in which he bemoaned how the movie "has been criticized by those who have yet to see it as an unbalanced denouncement of Ronald Reagan's presidency," though that was exactly what viewers were about to see. He also maintained that "nearly all" of the "facts" are true: "Nearly all of the historical facts in the movie can be substantiated and have been carefully researched."

And the bias didn't relent after the movie when the producers displayed their political agenda in a series of on-screen text messages which highlighted how Reagan helped Saddam Hussein and blamed Reagan for AIDS deaths.

On the production values side, the film's shallowness and brief scenes meant it didn't approach the quality and authenticity of NBC's The West Wing.

After nearly three hours of scenes of a befuddled Reagan barely able to comprehend what aides around him are discussing, a bunch of very weird scenes of dreams in which Ronald Reagan imagines himself as a lifeguard saving present-day administration officials, and numerous temper tantrums between Nancy and daughter Patti, interrupted by Nancy consulting her astrologer and telling Mike Deaver how ketchup really is a vegetable, it's hard to imagine how anyone not familiar with the Reagan years -- anyone under age 30 or so -- would have any idea how he won election to any office, never mind a landslide re-election to the presidency.

On the political policy front, the movie basically jumped from negative anecdote to negative anecdote, highlighting a liberal hit parade from the 1980s: Reagan saying trees cause pollution, the administration counting ketchup as a vegetable, Reagan sleeping through a Libyan attack on an Air Force jet, embarrassment over SS graves at the Bitburg cemetery visited by Reagan, and how Reagan said he "saw" the "horrible" holocaust though he was in Hollywood during the war. (He probably was amongst the first to see the video of the death camps.)

And you don't have to take my word for how bad a movie CBS commissioned: On Saturday, Showtime let some TV critics see it and a few managed to write up reviews in time for their Sunday papers.

In the Los Angeles Times, state politics columnist Patt Morrison observed:

"The problem Reagan's admirers and chroniclers will find is that's about all there is here; we get Iran-Contra, but not Reagan's 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' We get the stupefyingly ill-advised visit to a cemetery where Nazi SS troops were buried, but not the Reagans teary-eyed at the memorial for the Challenger astronauts."

In a dispatch posted by Yahoo on Saturday night, the AP's David Bauder summarized the overall derogatory theme:

"The Reagans' faults are familiar to those who followed his presidency. What's striking is how they dominate this film compared to Reagan's successes; the Iran-Contra affair is given considerably more time than the Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union, and the economic boom of the 1980s is barely touched upon. The film opens with a befuddled Ronald and tearful Nancy Reagan dealing with the fallout of Iran-Contra, in which the government traded arms to Iran for hostages."

The Washington Post's liberal Tom Shales found some "endearing" moments, but he suggested:

"Nancy Reagan as Cruella De Vil and Ronald Reagan as the nearsighted Mister Magoo? There are those who will probably find the depictions of the former President and First Lady in The Reagans just that simplistic and cartoonish."

Shales elaborated: "The film, while not a hatchet job or unrelentingly vicious attack, definitely makes the Reagans rather freakish creatures, Nancy with her fanatical reliance on an astrologer and her tendency to sob and rant in the bathtub, Ronald haunted by nightmares of being a lifeguard, as he was in his youth, and being unable to 'save,' among others, figures in his administration who go down in disgrace."

He lambasted CBS: "There's enough nastiness and character assassination in the film -- even without the line about AIDS -- to make CBS look wise in pulling it off the network and foolish in having scheduled it in the first place. It's a matter of bad timing as well as bad manners; former President Reagan is not only still alive but seriously and terminally ill, making a drama riddled with slurs unseemly and hugely inappropriate."

In Sunday's Miami Herald, Glenn Garvin conveyed:

"The Reagans, which airs tonight on CBS' corporate cable cousin Showtime, portrays the former President as a bumbling bob who would have been more at home in a pie fight or an eye-poking contest than as leader of the free world. In the view of The Reagans, we should probably be thankful we didn't wind up with the chimp from Bedtime for Bonzo as Secretary of State."

While Garvin maintained that "the script of The Reagans is not the one-sided character assassination that conservatives were calling it a few weeks ago during the uproar that triggered the CBS cancellation," he reported: "It's still clear that the screenwriters (Jane Marchwood, Tom Rickman and Elizabeth Egloff) are not politically sympathetic to Reagan, particularly in the hysterical scenes in which he's blamed literally for the end of the world over his AIDS policies. And the sound-bite bits that they occasionally use from his speeches have been removed from all context, making them sound like troglodyte ravings. Easy enough to laugh now at talk of Soviet world domination, but nobody was giggling during the Berlin airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis."

In contrast, New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley didn't see what everyone else saw. Seemingly in a parallel universe, she insisted:

"There is no reason Showtime's version of The Reagans could not have been broadcast on CBS earlier this month....Anyone eagerly anticipating or dreading a hatchet job on the 40th President is bound to feel confounded. James Brolin's portrayal of Ronald Reagan is uncannily convincing and respectful."...
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