NEW YORK – The imploding of the CBS miniseries "The Reagans (search)," which was pulled off the network Tuesday amid charges of inaccuracy, has raised larger questions about creative ethics and artistic license.
Some are calling the network's decision to move the controversial two-part series to Showtime (search) a victory for decency, while others say it smacks of censorship.
"It’s a great day for grassroots Americans who said 'CBS went too far. We want none of this,'" Mike Paranzino, founder of boycottcbs.com (search), told Fox News.
Meanwhile, Ellis Henican, also on Fox News, countered: "Let’s don’t be in the censorship corner. We should tell CBS to toughen up."
When making a film based on a real person, it's impossible to use exact dialogue or to accurately re-create a secret meeting, so the questions are: How much artistic license should filmmakers employ; how clear should they be about a film's fictional elements; and how sensitive do they need to be to the legacy and feelings of their subject?
Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie," said quality is more important than exact historical facts.
“The issue is, is it good, is it art, does it say anything about [the] human condition?" he said. "Historical accuracy is very important for news and for documentary, but is not important for these kind of things.”
But others point out programs based on real figures may mislead the public and may unfairly damage the subject's reputation.
“We live in a culture today of reality TV," Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a conference call on Friday. "Lines between fact and fiction get blurred. I am concerned that its portrayal of our 40th president and his wife is not historically accurate."
In fact, Gillespie said reviews for historical accuracy should be routine when portraying a president's career or legacy.
"I would make the same case about a portrayal of the Kennedy administration or the Carter administration," he said.
But Gabler said it's not filmmakers' responsibility to teach viewers.
"If we get our history from these things, it’s our problem, it’s a problem of an incurious society that it gets its history from a TV movie," he said. "If you are really interested in historical record of the Reagans, there are plenty of places to get it."
Throughout the debate about "The Reagans," those who were in favor of airing the show argued that many unflattering films and TV miniseries have been made about John F. Kennedy without nearly so much protest.
"You didn’t hear anyone from Kennedy's family or the Democratic Party railing against these profiles," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
"It looks like the conservative movement wanted to spin one for the Gipper, and they succeeded," he said.
But Jim Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor, said the show was pulled because it was inaccurate.
"CBS tried to do a hit job on Reagan and they got caught," said Pinkerton, who had predicted that the show would be pulled. "I don’t think [this was] censorship. It’s protest. It’s boycotts ... The only people who can really censor things are people who will put you in jail if you do it anyway."
In its statement announcing the removal of "The Reagans" from the schedule, CBS seemed to admit some inaccuracies.
"Although the miniseries features impressive production values and acting performances, and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience," the network said in a statement.
According to reports, among the parts that were offensive was the line "They that live in sin shall die in sin" -- Reagan's reply to Nancy when she asks him to do more for AIDS victims in the miniseries.
Among watchdogs who observe the melding of media and politics, there is some shock over CBS' decision to cave to pressure to have the movie yanked.
"Firstly, I don’t think his legacy was going to get dinged at all by four hours of made-for-TV programming," said Felling. "It sets a dangerous precedent that you have to have complete approval by all parties before you can go forward [with a biopic]. ... There’s a scene in every movie or TV movie when a learned observer can say ‘That didn’t happen.’"
Still, Gillespie said the miniseries' reported omissions and exaggerations may cause Americans to "come away with a misunderstanding of the Reagans and the Reagan administration."
Gabler, for his part, said that kind of thinking is naive and pointed out that recent TV movies about Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason all gave fictionalized versions of these public figures' lives.
"If they wanted to indict the people who made terrible TV, every TV executive would be in Leavenworth," he said.
Gabler added that former President Reagan's failing health fueled the fire, but that sympathy ultimately shouldn't be enough to stop a program from being made.
"In human terms, ethically speaking you might want to exhibit a certain sensitivity," he said. "But CBS in pursuit of its free expression had a right to do whatever the hell they wanted."
Pinkerton, who supported taking the film off the air, agreed in theory with Gabler, but said this particular show was blatantly wrong-headed.
"I think [filmmakers] should try to be accurate and I don’t think [the] people making [the] CBS movie strove to be accurate."