History channel draws flak for planned JFK miniseries


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A new miniseries about John F. Kennedy's presidency that is being prepared by the History channel does not yet have a cast or a premiere date. Not a frame of footage has been shot. It does, however, have prominent critics who want it brought to a halt.

The critics, including Theodore C. Sorensen, a former Kennedy adviser, say they have read the scripts for the project, and that they 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 miniseries, 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 stopkennedysmears.com, 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.' "

The charges come as a surprise to the members of the production team behind "The Kennedys," who say that the scripts for the eight-part series are still being rewritten, and criticism of the project is premature.

"Next year, when it's done and it's on the air, if people want to criticize it, so be it," said Stephen Kronish, the screenwriter of "The Kennedys," who said he identifies himself as a liberal Democrat. "But at this stage of evolutionary development it seems that Mr. Greenwald's agenda becomes all the more obvious."

Given the resumes of the players in the debate it is understandable why everyone sees agendas everywhere. On one side is Mr. Surnow, an Emmy Award-winning producer and friend of prominent conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh. During Mr. Surnow's tenure as executive producer, his hit series "24" was criticized for its seemingly permissive attitude toward torture.

On the other side is Mr. Greenwald, the founder of the advocacy media company Brave New Films, who has created documentaries such as "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," a condemnation of the Fox News Channel, and "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers."

Before turning to nonfiction films Mr. Greenwald was a director and producer of made-for-television movies. From his contacts in that industry -- agents, managers, casting directors, location scouts -- he said he began receiving copies of "The Kennedys" scripts this year. He then recruited a group of historians to appear in his video, including Mr. Sorensen and Nigel Hamilton, whose 1992 best-seller "J.F.K.: Reckless Youth" was criticized by the Kennedy family.

They say the "Kennedys" screenplays contain many factual errors, some benign and others less so. For example, they say the scripts refer to exit polling for the 1960 presidential election when exit polling had not yet been invented; and that Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps during the Bay of Pigs crisis in April 1961, when in fact he signed an executive order creating the corps one month earlier.

Beyond this, they say the scripts invent scenes that never occurred, such as an exchange that suggests Kennedy came up with the idea for the Berlin Wall. As Mr. Sorensen bluntly says in the video, "Every single conversation with the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened."

In another scene cited, a Secret Service agent approaches the president while he is having sex in a pool with a young woman who is not his wife.

In short, "The Kennedys" "does everything in its power to demean and make them quite disgusting figures," Mr. Greenwald said. "No network or cable channel has ever done anything anywhere close to this, in the way in treats a president."

But the debate around "The Kennedys" recalls a similar flare-up around the miniseries called "The Reagans" that CBS was to show 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.)

Mr. Kronish, the "Kennedys" screenwriter, said that the History channel's standards for producing its miniseries are more rigorous than the broadcast networks', and that his finished scripts will require bibliographic annotations and legal vetting before filming proceeds. He also said that he was drawing upon nonfiction works, including books by Seymour Hersh, Robert Dallek, David Talbot and others. "If I'm wrong," he said, "I guess all of them are wrong."

Mr. Kronish acknowledged that some factual details, like the date that the Peace Corps was established, were changed for concision or dramatic license but not with malicious intent.

"This is not a documentary," he said. "It is a dramatization." As its author, Mr. Kronish said, it was his job to "take these people off the dusty pages of history and make them come alive."

David McKillop, the senior vice president of programming and development for the History channel, said that Mr. Kronish had already begun submitting annotated drafts of his scripts, and that the channel stands by their accuracy.

Mr. Greenwald said that he was not seeking to censor the History channel.

"Anyone has a right to do whatever they want," he said. "I would never suggest that History channel doesn't have a right. What I'd suggest is something called the History channel should not be doing political propaganda."

Mr. Kronish, for his part, said that he was "not out to destroy the sacred cow" of the Kennedy presidency, but that in being faithful to history, the miniseries would necessarily contain elements that might upset Kennedy adherents.

Kennedy "was part of my youth and the first president I was aware of," he said. "But there are things that are part of their story and aren't admirable because they were human."


First Published February 20, 2010 5:00 AM


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