Outraged Citizens Campaign Forces History Channel to Rethink Miniseries About the Kennedys
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Media observers are abuzz with talk of a History Channel mini-series called "The Kennedys." While the scripts for the eight-part show, slated to air in 2011, are still unfinished, that hasn't stopped 40,000 people from signing a petition calling the series "right-wing character assassination" and "politically motivated fiction."
The populist rage stems from two roots. The first is that the History Channel gave the green light -- and $30 million -- to Joel Surnow, a producer with significant ties to right-wing media. Known for producing "24," the hit terrorist-fighting series that has normalized torture techniques for many Americans, Surnow is tight with Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News. His ties with the channel extend beyond the personal, as he also executive produced its now-defunct "1/2 Hour News Hour."
"The History Channel made a major mistake by turning this project over to a man with a publicly right-wing agenda," says Robert Greenwald, the progressive filmmaker who heads Brave New Films and has produced such documentaries as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. "Would you want me to be doing a Bush mini-series?" he asked. (Disclosure: Greenwald sits on AlterNet's board.)
Perhaps not if the intent is to be politically unbiased.
Greenwald himself is behind the second reason fueling the campaign to quash the mini-series. A leaked script for "The Kennedys" found its way into his showbiz-connected hands, which he shared with prominent Kennedy historians who have since gone on the record calling the script everything from distorted and nonsensical to propaganda.
"I've read the script," writes Greenwald in a letter directing supporters to the campaign's site, StopKennedySmears.com. "It's ridiculous, sexually exploitative, revolting stuff -- everything you'd expect from a conservative re-writing of history... this garbage, coming so soon after Ted Kennedy's death, makes the worst commercial schlock look Oscar-worthy."
The script Greenwald has circulated includes various factual inaccuracies as well as a multitude of inventions, according to Kennedy experts. One scene in particular shocked Nigel Hamilton, a senior fellow in policy studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In it, John F. Kennedy conceives of the Berlin Wall as a way to secure West Berliners from East Germany. In truth, the Berlin Wall was not a western conception; instead, it was built by East Germany to enforce Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions.
In another scene, JFK is having sex in a pool with a girl named Judy, when a Secret Service agent comes to deliver time-sensitive information from McGeorge Bundy, his security advisor; the president doesn't stop what he's doing as the agent delivers the news. Indeed, sex figures importantly in the leaked script -- JFK tells his father that having sex with strangers helps him run the country better, and he tells his brother Bobby that extramarital relations stave off his migraines. To be sure, Kennedy had many confirmed dalliances with women other than his wife, but the character presented in the advance script is portrayed as a silly heir with no interests other than sex.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I read this," says David Nasaw, professor of American history at the City University of New York, in the campaign's video. "I want to laugh because the portraits are so god-awful stupid. I want to cry because I feel that if they're successful and get this thing on the air, with credible-looking actors, a generation is going to get its history from this nonsense."
Thurston Clarke, historian and author of Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America , believes Surnow's involvement and the "conscious political hits" he read in the script make it possible that the overly sleazy script is an attempt to derail the upcoming 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Likely most damaging to the series' reputation is that Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speechwriter and special adviser, whom the late president called his "intellectual blood bank," has also come out against the script.
According to Sorensen, "not a single scene" in which he appears took place. "Some of that is simply sloppy invention, but most of it is because the script has been distorted by a hatred for the Kennedys," he told AlterNet. "Almost everything is invented or slanted in one way or another against the Kennedys."
One scene Sorensen is not placed in, but which he is convinced is false, depicts Joe Kennedy Sr. ripping a wooden crucifix off a wall and breaking it over his knee in anger. (The family patriarch was a famously devout Catholic.) "I can't believe for one minute that that ever happened. It's a nice slur against [Kennedy's] father, against the Catholic religion, but it's not reality," Sorensen says.
Sorensen muses that if the History Channel were to air the script he read, they had better amp up their legal budget. While he does not feel he was "personally attacked in this script" and his policy "has never been to engage in a spitting contest with a skunk," Sorensen believes many others would certainly file libel lawsuits.
History Channel executives insist the script Greenwald shared with Sorensen and others is just a draft that was written before they had anything to do with the project, and would categorically not be aired on the History Channel. Michael Feeney, a spokesman for A&E Television Networks, which owns the History Channel, says the script Greenwald has is dated May last year, whereas the channel only approved the project in December. "That was a draft of an early script," he says. "The script we bought was different than the one Greenwald has out there. It's not the one the series was green-lit upon."
But Greenwald says the script he has, while dated May on the cover, actually includes more recent revisions inside and is the one being used to shop the show to potential actors. (Among the names he's heard floated are Ben Affleck, John Malkovich and Ed Harris, all of whom purportedly turned down roles.)
In a front-page New York Times article Friday morning, History Channel executives and a screenwriter for "The Kennedys" did not mention that the script Greenwald has circulated is a draft.