Campaign Against JFK Miniseries Smear Effort Forces History Channel to Rethink Project
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. (Interestingly, as Hamilton points out, the Bay of Pigs crisis, the most renowned of all of Kennedy’s foreign policy moments, is never mentioned in the script.)
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.
“I’m glad to hear that the History Channel is changing its tune and that it will not run this screenplay,” Greenwald said, upon hearing of the statements the History Channel made to AlterNet. “It means that the 40,000 who’ve signed our petition are really having an impact.”
“The important thing is that they take a time-out and fix it. What fixes it is up to them, but I look forward to hearing what they plan to do,” says Greenwald.
Feeney says the History Channel has “never had a political agenda,” and points to its recent airing of Howard Zinn’s “People Speak” series as proof of its balanced coverage. He says Surnow is the right person for this project in spite of his being an avowed conservative and the topic being one of the most celebrated Democratic presidents, because he is a “prolific producer.”
The spokesman adds that “nothing on the History Channel would run that is not historically accurate.” The channel employs three in-house historians who vet all of their programming for historical accuracy, and everything has to be sourced and annotated.
But this isn’t the first time the channel has been met with outcry over the accuracy of its historical programming — it has even been hit on Kennedy-related content before. In 2003, the ninth episode in a series called “The Men Who Killed Kennedy” linked Lyndon B. Johnson, among others, to JFK’s assassination. Johnson’s widow, journalist Bill Moyers, former presidents Ford and Carter, and the last surviving member of the Warren Commission lodged complaints of libel against the History Channel. A&E responded by assembling a panel of historians who agreed that the documentary was not plausible; the series was no longer aired.
According to Feeney, each episode in the series on the Kennedy assassination focused on different conspiracy theories relating to the event, and the channel erred in not making the theoretical aspect more clear to its audience. He further concedes that “The Kennedys” is uncharted territory for the channel, as it has never produced an original scripted mini-series, though it has aired historical movies and “Band of Brothers,” an HBO series set during World War II.
Such examples are likely what led Ted Sorensen to say that as a historian, he generally views the History Channel as “interested in ratings a lot more than they are interested in accuracy.”
Meanwhile, an official statement prepared by the History Channel as a response to Greenwald’s campaign says that its brand “is the gold standard for historical accuracy… ["The Kennedys"] scripts are in early draft form and are currently being annotated by top Kennedy historians, vetted and revised every day. There are no final versions.”
This does not explain why the channel bought a script that in any (or every) way resembled the script the StopKennedySmears.com campaign obtained, but all the high-level attention could play a significant role in ensuring that the final product be historically responsible.