Free Speech Impediment

To read the original and revised scripts, go here.

David E. Kelley – the Emmy Award-winning creator of such memorable series' as Picket Fences, Doogie Howser M.D., Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and its current spin-off, Boston Legal – is probably the most prolific and successful writer/producer now working in television. Coupled with the fact that he is married to film star Michelle Pfeiffer, Kelley’s talent makes him one of the most influential people in the entertainment world. But apparently even Kelley’s power pales before the might of Disney and the MausHaus.

Case in point: the next episode of Boston Legal, to be broadcast Sunday March 13 on the Disney-owned ABC network. AlterNet has acquired both the original and the revised script for this episode from a source who prefers to remain anonymous. The original penned by Kelley focused in large measure on Fox News and its loofah-loving star Bill O'Reilly. The script also featured substantial excerpts from the independent film Outfoxed, which documents how the allegedly "fair and balanced" cable channel acts as a propaganda arm for the Republican Party and other conservative interest groups.

But the final script – the one that was actually shot for the show that will appear on Sunday – has been thoroughly scrubbed on orders from top ABC network executives, and all mention of Fox News and O’Reilly has been sent down the Memory Hole.

Why was the original script, which ironically centered on issues of free speech, censored?

Kelley won’t say why the changes were made – and no one at his production company, his producing partner 20th Century Fox, ABC or even Fox News is talking.

But a comparison of the original script and the censored script speaks for itself. In the original, Chi McBride (principal of the high school featured in Kelley’s previous hit Boston Public) installs a "Fox Blocker" on every television set in his school, on the entirely reasonable grounds that what appears on Fox News is not news but in fact "hate speech." One of his students, Stuart Milch, believes McBride’s decision to be censorship, and takes his case to the attorneys of Boston Legal.

Here’s a taste of what millions of viewers will now miss next Sunday:
Stuart: "It’s called a Fox Blocker. Sold off the internet. You attach it to the coaxial cable on your television and it basically blocks out all Fox News transmissions… My high school principal attached these liberal, left-wing devices to all the televisions in the building. Meanwhile, the kids are free to watch CBS, CNN, NBC, even ABC, But not Fox. It’s censorship."
It’s called censorship, all right – just not on Boston Legal anymore. Here’s what the final, scrubbed-and-censored script says instead:
Stuart: "It’s called a news blocker. Sold off the internet. You attach it to the coaxial cable on your television and it basically blocks out news transmission…. My high school principal attached these devices to all the televisions in the building. The problem is… turns out it only blocks out one network, the most fair and balanced one. All the others, kids can watch."
Here’s another example, this time of an interchange between two Boston Legal characters – attorney Chelina Hall and Catherine Piper, secretary to attorney Alan Shore (played by Boston Legal star, James Spader.) Again, original script first:
Chelina: If you had to watch the news, Mrs. Piper, which network would you go to?
Catherine (simply): Fox, of course.
Chelina: Can you tell us why?
Catherine: Well. For starters, we’re winning the war on Fox. The economy’s better there. And Brit Hume. Sometimes I close my eyes and…go to him.
And now, the censored version:
Chelina: If you had to watch the news, Mrs. Piper, which network would you go to?
Catherine (simply): I don’t know. I’d probably seek out the station where we’re most likely to be winning the war. Where I can find a better economy. Maybe some weapons of mass destruction.
And so it continues, page after expurgated page. No Fox. No Bill O’Reilly. No Brit Hume. … And no free speech?

No way to know – because no one will speak, not even the articulate, prolific and powerful Mr. Kelley.

Speaking of free speech, there’s another, related issue to consider as well – the unexplained fact that Robert Greenwald, creator of the Outfoxed documentary (which curiously is still excerpted and mentioned by name in Sunday’s episode) was unable to purchase time on the ABC network to advertise his film.

According to Greenwald’s distributor Gary Baddeley, a representative of the Broadcast Standards and Practices Department at ABC named Joel Resnicow indicated that ABC would not accept an ad for Outfoxed to run adjacent to Boston Legal, “although he was reluctant to come out and say so directly, I suspect for political reasons,” says Baddeley.

"I really pushed him hard to say what we would have to do to edit the ad to make it acceptable and he said he ‘can't think of anything,’" Baddeley says. “He also said that ‘it seems like there are insurmountable issues’ and [he] ‘wouldn't want us to invest time’ in re-editing. So although he wouldn't actually say ‘we will not approve an ad for this film no matter what’ - that is the practical effect of what he is saying. The door has been closed in our face.”

In keeping with the overall vow of silence accompanying the Boston Legal "free speech" episode, neither Joel Resnicow nor indeed anyone at ABC’s Broadcast Standards and Practices Department was willing to comment. When pressed for an explanation of why the ad was refused, ABC’s media relations rep Susan Sewell said only "No comment." The non-answer answer was the same even when she was asked for an explanation – or indeed any articulation whatsoever – of ABC’s "Broadcast Standards and Practices."

And Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes – usually good for at least a quip, if not an actual quote – also declined comment.

To see the ad that ABC censored, click here.

And while you’re at it, why not ask David E. Kelley what pressure was brought to bear on him to censor an episode of his series – one supposedly devoted to the issue of free speech. The telephone number for David E. Kelley Productions is 650.853.9100.

In the interest of free speech, maybe he’ll even talk to you.

Robert Greenwald is a board member of the Independent Media Institute, the parent organization of AlterNet.

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