ebruary 17, 2010
Even Before Filming, Kennedy Series Stirs Anger

A new mini-series about John F. Kennedy’s presidency that is being prepared by the History channel does not yet have a cast or a premiere date. Not a frame of footage has been shot. It does, however, have prominent critics who want it brought to a halt.

The critics, including Theodore C. Sorensen, a former Kennedy adviser, say they have read the scripts for the project and that those contain errors of fact and emphasis. But like a similar controversy over a 2003 television film about Ronald Reagan, the dispute over the embryonic Kennedy series seems to say as much about the enduring place of the Kennedys as a battleground in the culture wars as it does about history itself.

The mini-series, called “The Kennedys,” is the brainchild of Joel Surnow, a creator of the Fox action show “24” and an outspoken political conservative. That raised alarms among Kennedy partisans when the History channel said in December that it would pick up the project.

Now a documentary filmmaker who makes no secret of his liberal politics is releasing an Internet video in which Kennedy scholars say the scripts offer a portrait of the president and his family that is, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a hatchet job.

“It was political character assassination,” the filmmaker, Robert Greenwald, said of the screenplays in a telephone interview. “It was sexist titillation and pandering, and it was turning everything into a cheap soap opera of the worst kind.” Mr. Greenwald said he is hoping that his 13-minute video and an accompanying petition, at stopkennedysmears.com, will take on lives of their own on the Web. A title card at the film’s conclusion reads: “Tell the History Channel I refuse to watch right-wing character assassination masquerading as ‘history.’ ”

The charges come as a surprise to the members of the production team behind “The Kennedys,” who say that the scripts for the eight-part series are still being rewritten, and that criticism of the project is premature.

“Next year, when it’s done and it’s on the air, if people want to criticize it, so be it,” said Stephen Kronish, the screenwriter of “The Kennedys,” who said he identifies himself as a liberal Democrat. “But at this stage of evolutionary development it seems that Greenwald’s agenda becomes all the more obvious.”

Given the résumés of the players in the debate it is understandable why everyone sees agendas everywhere. On one side is Mr. Surnow, an Emmy Award-winning producer and friend of prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. During Mr. Surnow’s tenure as executive producer, his hit series “24” was criticized for its seemingly permissive attitude toward torture.

On the other side is Mr. Greenwald, the founder of the advocacy media company Brave New Films, who has created documentaries like “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” a condemnation of the Fox News Channel, and “Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers.”