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SAD MAX! How inept is your press elite? Reciting a standard Reagan script, Max Frankel is eager to show you:


HEARING IS BELIEVING: How inept is your modern press elite? Max Frankel is eager to show you. A few weeks back, Frankel offered a lightweight review of Wesley Clark’s Waging Modern Wars—a review in which the scribe insisted that Clark is just bitter/bitter/bitter (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/27/03). Now, Frankel’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times helps establish a companion point. It is American citizens who ought to be bitter—bitter about the Max Frankels.

Frankel discusses the unseen CBS film about the Reagans. Here at THE HOWLER, we assume the film will turn out to be junk, although we’re reluctant to make final judgments until we’ve actually seen it. But Frankel is ready to rock and roll now—and he’s eager to recite pleasing scripts. What’s wrong with TV films like The Reagans? “Seeing is believing,” Frankel says; people tend to believe what they see in such films, even if what they see is bogus. Indeed, if CBS broadcast a phony invasion from Mars, “many people…would deem it credible.” People believe what they see on TV. According to Frankel, that’s why the CBS film was an “irresponsible project from the start.”

Again, we oppose slipshod TV movies, too. But then, citizens hardly need CBS to mislead and confuse them with “journalists” like Frankel kicking around. As he closes his piece, he recites a point you’ve heard many times since this flap began. Would people believe a fake Martian invasion? That isn’t all, Frankel says:

FRANKEL: So too with the claims that President Reagan had been cruelly indifferent to the victims of AIDS…To persuade people of the plausibility of an untruth is not only to lie, but to lie effectively. No claim of art or higher truth can justify such forgery. [end of column]
In this conclusion, Frankel types a principal talking-point from those who have attacked the CBS film. The film was wrong, its opponents have said, to show Reagan making an insensitive statement about AIDS. “They that live in sin shall die in sin,” the movie’s script had Reagan saying. Endlessly, angry critics have noted that Reagan never made this statement. Plainly, this statement is the “forgery”—the “lie”—which Frankel attacks in his piece.

Frankel repeats—for the ten millionth time—this point about Reagan and AIDS. But alas! Right above the Frankel piece—right on the very same Times op-ed page—Reagan biographer Edmund Morris offers his view on the film. And as he does so, he offers an awkward fact. Morris repeats a statement he says Reagan made during the early AIDS crisis:

MORRIS: What Mr. Reagan did as president…cannot be argued away. Neither, it might be added, can his more serious derelictions, such as the bartering of arms for hostages, and (yes) his lack of any particular sympathy for the victims of AIDS. The writers of CBS’s canceled miniseries have invented a bit of dialogue to the latter effect, but historians might more seriously ponder Mr. Reagan’s actual remarks, including, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague [because] illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”
Morris quoted this statement in his biography, Dutch. On Sunday, he quoted it again.

Did Reagan actually make this statement? Here at THE HOWLER, we aren’t really sure. Morris took remarkable liberties when he wrote Dutch—but he’s also a capable, honored historian, and now he reaffirms the claim that Reagan made this remark. So, assuming that Morris’ claim is accurate, just compare a pair of statements. Compare what Reagan actually said to what he would have said in the movie:

WHAT REAGAN ACTUALLY SAID: Maybe the Lord brought down this plague [because] illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.

WHAT REAGAN WOULD HAVE SAID IN THE FILM: They that live in sin shall die in sin.

To state the obvious, it’s hard to parse a significant difference. But according to Frankel, this movie was wicked because of that statement. That statement was a “forgery”—a “lie.”

For the record, the fact that Morris quoted that statement in Dutch has been known since the start of this controversy (see below). And if Reagan actually made the statement, no one could claim that the TV script was far off the mark. Did Reagan say what Morris claims? If so, this flap is a big load of bunk. And so is Frankel’s scripted column.

So note the absurdity of yesterday’s Times. There is Frankel, typing away, repeating a ubiquitous spin-point: What Reagan says in the film is a “lie.” And right above him, on the very same page, Morris notes that Reagan made an equivalent statement! Here’s our question: Over the course of the past several weeks, did Frankel make the slightest effort to learn if the Morris citation is accurate? And here’s another question: Did Frankel’s editor even look up when she put these contradictory columns into print? Of course not! Your press elite is hapless, inept—they’re lazy, indifferent to truth and its demands. Frankel heard a pleasing spin-point—and to slackers like Frankel, hearing is believing! He typed the point for the ten millionth time, and the Times threw his piece into print.

FACTS PLAY NO ROLE IN YOUR DISCOURSE: Did Reagan make the statement quoted by Morris? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know. But since the day this flap began, the Morris quote has been part of the record. The first report on the CBS film appeared in the Times on October 21. Jim Rutenberg quoted the woman who wrote the script—and she cited the Morris quotation:

RUTENBERG: Elizabeth Egloff, a playwright who wrote the final version of the script, acknowledged there was no evidence such a conversation took place. But, she said, “we know [President Reagan] ducked the issue over and over again, and we know [Nancy Reagan] was the one who got him to deal with it.” She added that other biographies noted that Mr. Reagan had trouble squaring homosexuality with the Bible. In “Dutch,” Mr. Reagan’s authorized biography, the author, Edmund Morris, writes that Mr. Reagan once said of AIDS, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague,” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”
Let’s say it again: From the start, everyone knew about the Morris quotation. But in all the hubbub that ensued, have you seen a single reporter ask Morris about the quotation? Using Nexis, we find no sign that any reporter ever asked Morris for verification. In all the hubbub that we’ve observed, none of the lackeys who make up your “press corps” ever tried to establish this basic fact.

Which leads us directly to yesterday’s clowning. There we find biographer Morris, reporting the Reagan quotation again. And right below him—on the very same page!—there we find the hapless Frankel, calling an equivalent statement a “lie.” Lazy, indifferent, inept and inert, your modern press elite tells the stories it likes. Did Reagan make the statement from Dutch? Here at THE HOWLER, we still don’t quite know. Neither, of course, does Max Frankel.