There has been a donnybrook of late at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization that provides free legal advice to journalists with First Amendment problems. It also monitors legislative attempts to constrict the flow of information. The current internal debate is not, however, over constitutional or legislative strategies. It's about a TV movie and whether the Reporters Committee should have agreed to let that movie be shown as a benefit for the committee.
The film is called "Murrow," and it is a docudrama that will be shown commercially on Time Inc.'s Home Box Office. Not everything you see in a docudrama actually happened. "Murrow" coproducer Robert Berger explains: "Your obligation is to be true to the way that person behaved and spoke. Even if you are making up dialogue, you can find some basis in what is published. You are not pretending to be a journalist."
Quite true. Journalists, most of them anyway, do not make up dialogue. Their way of being true to the way a person behaved and spoke is to describe the way he behaved and spoke. They do not engage in the "as if" school of history, which goes: "Maybe it didn't happen that way, but it could have happened that way, so we'll write it as if it happened that way."
A vote was held among the members of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as to whether the docudrama about Edward R. Murrow would be given the imprimatur of the committee. Imprimatur is the word, because if an organization is going to make money from a showing on its behalf, it is surely lending whatever respectability it has to the film.
Some members were opposed because they felt "Murrow" was greatly misleading insome respects. Walter Cronkite feels strongly that it maligns former CBS president Frank Stanton. Others, myself among them, objected because no matter what the subject, the docudrama as a genre is counterfeit.
Docudramas are based, as George Will has said, on a license to lie. For an organization of journalists to be in business with a manufacturer of docudramas is to give away too much, whatever it is going to get from the benefit.
It is also rather dismaying for the Reporters Committee (my side lost the vote) to ally itself with a way of presenting history that fills young viewers in particular with so misshapen a sense of what actually happened. They weren't around then, but many teen-agers are convinced they know all about Jack and Bobby, Abe Lincoln and George Washington, Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat because they have seen them on the docudrama screen.
The "as if" way of telling history is all the more compelling, of course, if the actors are powerful. George C. Scott, for instance. Mussolini wasn't such a bad guy. After all, he became a great general in the United States Army, and on Christmas Day, he started being a second father to Tiny Tim. History in many secondary schools is so compressed that only fragments remain. Docudramas replace that confusion with fiction.
There are, to be sure, defenders of this fakery. In October, Alfred R. Schneider, ABC-TV's vice president for policy and standards, spoke at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. His subject was "To Speak the Truth: Television and Docudrama."
Bravely, Schneider revealed his network's guidelines for docudrama producers. Docudrama is defined as nonfiction entertainment programming "where the overall presentation impacts authenticity, regardless of whether or not dramatic license has been exercised for portrayals of characters, or composites of persons or events have been utilized to conform to time limitations."
New forms create new language. "Impacts authenticity" is the true shifty child of docudrama. And how does one impact the "authenticity" of composite persons and events?
Schneider answers that question, sort of: "Composite characters -- based on two or more real individuals -- may be used, but no character can be invented from whole cloth."
But scenes can be invented from whole cloth. "Even if there is no verifiable proof for a scene," Schneider informs us, "it will be allowed on a 'reasonable basis' if it conforms to the individual's known attitudes and behavior and there's no contradictory evidence."
Scenes in "Murrow" were invented. Presumably on a reasonable basis.
An honest documentary, with plenty of drama, could have been presented with Edward R. Murrow playing Edward R. Murrow, and such of his works as the cutting down of Joseph McCarthy. Any journalist would have been proud to be associated with that premiere.