Proceedings of The Second National Conference on Television and Ethics March 6, 1987 Boston, Massachusetts DOES TELEVISION CHANGE HISTORY? Sponsored by EMERSON COLLEGE and The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Boston/New England Chapter FIRST SESSION: DOCUDRAMA PANEL Objective: To explore the extent to which television mediates reality Moderator: Clifford Christians, Ph.D., University of Illinois Panelists: Rick Allen, Actor Alan Canfora, Former Kent State Student Steve Doran, Producer "Kent State" Martin Goldstein, Producer/Historical Consultant "Kent State" Ed Hume, Screenwriter "The Day After" Research Presentation: Structuring Mediated Reality: The Kent State Docudrama Robert Baukus, Ph.D. J. Gregory Payne, Ph. D.
As I'm looking at this topic, I feel as though I'm standing before the Himalaya Mountains. Television and history. Television and reality. Television and ethics. Docudrama as an art form. Those kinds of issues could warrant our attention until the day we die-and we only have three hours.
I'd like to start by introducing the purpose of the panel and why we've chosen these three docudramas to concentrate on. then we'll take an hour for discussion, and later open it up to the audience for the last hour.
Schopenhauer said that the press was the second hand of history-made of lead. Now lead could be an inferior metal, but we all know instinctively that the press is providing a historical account of space and time. And we all know as well that as we write the first few rough drafts of history, whether as news, documentary, or docudrama, they may well determine the final statement. Docudrama is history. It's a powerful art form just coming into its own. Can the docudramatist meet the standards of the exacting historian? In terms of the Jeffersonian model democratic life, you all remember it as well as I do. Information plus education equals public opinion.
Does a docudrama, where the facticity of the particulars is judged in terms of the realism of the whole, qualify s information? If we use it in an educated way with intelligent minds, does it help us set the social agenda? Does it inform the public order?
Our main purpose this morning is to help clarify the relationship between docudrama and history.
The three case studies that we have chosen provide us with a window on these larger issues. All of them deal with the problem of war and militarism in our society. "Kent State" deals with the invasion into Cambodia. "Unnatural Causes" deals with Vietnam, and "The Day After" with the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Why "Kent State," first broadcast in February, 1981 on NBC? Kent State was rated as one of the top news stories of the 1970's. It's the time in which American innocence died. We were no longer having enemies shoot our soldiers in uniform, but our soldiers were shooting middle-class American youth. That was an epiphanic moment, in James Joyce's terms, when violence reached its peak of intensity within the soul of our culture.
It's an important docudrama in terms of aesthetics as well. Greg Payne was there as a historical consultant, and it was a docudrama that paid intense scrutiny to historical fact. The whole question of historical accuracy dogged the film from the day it was conceived until the very day that it was produced.
Then there's "The Day After," shown on ABC in November, 1982. Nearly 100 million people watched it, the largest audience ever to view a docudrama. "The Day After" also created more ancillary action than any other docudrama before or since. For example, Ted Koppe's "Viewpoint" had 50 million viewers watch his guests dissect the program for 75 minutes. "The Day After" was used by political activists to reactivate the freeze moment. And 50,000 people called into various telephone centers to discuss the show further.
And then came "Unnatural Causes" in November, 1986 on NBC. "Unnatural Causes" was a spectacular achievement because of our virtual inability to examine Vietnam on television.
We've been debating news, at least in its contemporary form, since the 1830's. We've talked about it in terms of the man bites dog formula, the five "W" lead (who, what, where, when, why), the inverted pyramid. We cannot hope in three hours to accomplish what we failed to do since the 1830's regarding news itself, let alone its cognate form of docudrama, whose history is very short, ten years or less.
There's a mega issue that dominates the agenda today. It revolves around the legitimacy of docudrama as an art form. The screenwriter of "The Atlanta Child Murders" docudrama, Abby Mann, represents one point of view. He says that docudrama meticulously and decently used can be an instrument for pubic enlightenment and for reopening questions that desperately need to be examined.
That reminds me of a story used by Jacob Branowsky in Science and Human Values. He talked about the sherpas in the Himalayas who live in the face of a majestic mountain. Though often shrouded in fog, the mountain brought them game, generated their art, inspired their reverence. A visitor came from another cuture and learned their language and grew to love that side of the mountain as well. And then some years later the visitor took elders from the tribe and brought them to the other valley and the other side of the mountain. And he spent years convincing them that it was the same mountain but from a different point of view. Gradually, as they observed the sunset and watched the fog and began to think about it from the side of the new perspective, they realized with excitement that it really was the same mountain seen from a perspective they could not have imagined before.
That's my side of the thinking about docudrama. It's one way to bring a new perspective to important social issues we've analyzed in terms of news and documentaries. It's a way to fire the moral imagination, to amplify the public debate. That's all one side-the importance of the docudrama as a new popular art form.
On the other side, we have the New York Times printing, "Does no one in television care enough about either news or fiction to halt this corruption?" George Will describes docudrama as "a license to lie," and Daniel Schorr as "a harvest of shame."
We'll start our discussion with "Kent State" and move from there to "Unnatural Causes" and finally to "The Day After."
As a way of bringing "Kent State" before you, we have two members of the Emerson College faculty who did research for the film's production, Bob Baukus and Greg Payne. We also have with us Alan Canfora, who was a Kent State student in May, 1970, and who was wounded by the National Guard.
I'd like to share some views on docudrama as well as on the process of making "Kent State." Then that will be followed by my colleague Robert Bauku. He's going to summarize initial findings on an Emerson study in which we tried to gauge the effect of the docudrama on the perceptions of the audience members.
Trying to reconcile history is a very, very old problem. In writing Tom Jones, Henry Fielding indicated that he "was not obliged to reconcile every matter to the notions concerning truth and nature." * When we look at television today and its pervasive impact on American culture, it's extremely important to assess the importance of either docudrama and docudrama, depending on which interpretation you provide. Because as Gerber and Connolly write, television tells its stories to people of all ages and all groups at the same time. Television presents its message and, unlike books and movies, is used by most people non-selectively.
What I would like to do now is offer some prominent definitions and distinguishing characteristics of docudrama and then take you through some of the processes involved in doing the Emmy award-winning "Kent State" docudrama. As an historical consultant and one of the principal sources, I was afforded some unique insights into what occurs in putting a film like this together. In focusing on key definitional problems and expectations and how they clashed during the production, I hope to demonstrate the inherent tensions that we feel today in looking at docudrama.
Mary Dollarhide, an actress in the theatrical production "Kent State, A Requiem," indicated her feelings on doing a piece like "Kent." According to Mary, the most important thing in doing historical pieces is to be accountable to the facts themselves. The audience should never say, That's Hollywood. Pieces like "Kent State" should make people think. Docudrama often adopts a historical outline but employs dramatic license to enhance the viewer's interest. This mode has been popular for a long time with authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Steinbeck, and others.
But Boston columnist Jack Thomas views the television docudrama format as problematic for today's non-discriminating viewer. Thomas writes, "Docudrama have the potential to educate as well as to entertain. But they also represent a threat to the truth because viewers have no way of knowing where documentary and dramatization end or begin. Of all the indignities heaped upon us by television, none is more dangerous than the business of restaging the past, of blurring fact and fiction so that we lose our sense of what is true and what is not."
But this perspective is not shared by all TV critics. USA Today's critic Ben Brown concludes that "No one has exclusive claim on the truth," and he maintains that there are "more sources, more angles, more ways to look at the same set of circumstances." Brown concludes, "should we measure Monet's lily pads by the standards of botanical photography? The people who are screaming for an end to docudrama are in even more dangerous territory. Afraid that we're not capable of being good media consumers, they want to license truth tellers. Journalists get a membership card, artists need not apply."
John Condry identifies television and docudrama as important channels for needed information, a theme that I think you're going to hear echoed in today's panelists. Condry writes, "One of the marvelous features of the human mind is its ability to sift the false from the true and to learn something. I suspect we are better informed than ever before, and a large measure of credit goes to television."
Clearly the docudrama format poses divergent expectations as well as intriguing ethical questions to viewers as well as to scholars. To what extent can television portray a historically accurate piece if dramatic license is favored by directors, producers, writers and network executives, not in obliging us to see," as Joseph Conrad argued but solely to enhance advertising profits by keeping viewers entertained. The effect of how this TV dependence mediates reality is represented by Katz' finding that "a media event as it actually happens less important than the event as it's represented on television." Because the broadcast is what the audience reacts to, to them it is the truth. It becomes history.
What are the definitions of docudrama? What are the expectations? What are the responsibilities of people who are involved in "Kent State," "The Day After," "Unnatural Causes?" And how do these differ from some of the demands that we read about in academic critiques? What are the strengths and limitations of this format?
I'd like to share with you four academic critiques of the movie "Kent State." One was written by Lou Cusella, who was a student at Kent State and is now a scholar in communication organization research. Lou looked at "Kent State" as "a rhetorical purgation to cleanse the image of the four students killed." According to Cusella, both television and docudrama have information constraints, and he writes that "Kent State" was more or less an attempt to correct, refine and cleanse the image of the four students killed at Kent. Furthermore, he describes the limitations of the docudrama format in his overall evaluation. "Kent State," he writes, "may be classified as real fiction because the historical event and the characters can never be depicted with the breadth and depth of detail in which they emerged. They can never be totally susceptible to empirical verification."
In another critiques, television docudrama critic John David wrote that "Kent State, A Requiem," the theatrical production, was more historically accurate and dramatically powerful. Yet he praised NBC's attempt to reach millions with a film based on a subject that continues to elicit a very strong response for all sides of the political spectrum. David also comments on the constraints and the dominant influence of the television medium as he writes, "Hopefully, individuals can learn to avoid events like Kent State by seeing historical tragedy in action. For that reason both the 'Requiem' and 'Kent State' are worthwhile projects. Both had their faults and omissions but a theatrical or cinematic work cannot be entirely flawless. They can, however, help individuals, whether television viewers or college students, to gain a knowledge of one of America's greatest tragedies." This cathartic objective, identified by Cusella, and the significance of the event criteria, as identified by David, are also recognized by D. Heisey and Carl Moore of Kent State as "only two of the possible intended purposes of the docudramatist." Heisey and Moore argue for what they call a "burden of truth" criteria. I would invite our panelists to ponder how realistic this would be.
The eight steps required by any docudrama would include: do not omit any significant material; do not add any untrue material; never embellish; avoid methodological errors; acknowledge production constraints; verify realities included; seek alternative interpretations, and acknowledge the rationale for inclusion and exclusion.
In applying these prerequisites to "Kent State," Heisey and Moore argue that "it failed to meet the burden of truth." Furthermore, Kent State sociologist Jerry Lewis indicates that "Kent State" was a panoramic docudrama, that in docudrama the analyst must evaluate not only the film's dramatic qualities but the accuracy of the film itself. Lewis believed "Kent State" was visually accurate but chronologically incorrect.
I would like to share with you a few of my own observations of why "Kent State" was flawed. I think this will give us a better understanding of problems in docudrama. Emerson alumnus Norman Lear wrote that what we see in television is basically "trivialization because television tries to trivialize almost everything."
From my initial meeting with Max and Micheline Keller, who first approached me about doing the "Kent State" film, I was a bit skeptical. One of the reasons for this was that I learned one of the production companies involved would be Osmond Productions. This was Donny and Marie; I wasn't quite sure that they would want to do a piece as I saw it. But Max and Micheline assured me that they wanted to tell the story as it was, without dramatic embellishment. This was a concern that I had, and it was shared by parents of the dead and wounded students. People wanted it to rely on credible sources: The President's Commission on Campus Unrest; the FBI Report, sources other than James A. Michener's celebrated work, Kent State, What Happened and Why. This was ridden with factual errors, even though Mr. Michener indicated that it was a true account of what occurred.
A problem developed when we started talking with director Jim Goldstone and co-producer Phillip Barry. They had a contrasting viewpoint of what docudrama was. According to Jim, what we needed to do was to have Kent State as a backdrop and zero in on some of the relationships between students. As an NBC movie executive at the time suggested, the storyline should be focused on the romance of Allison Krause and her boyfriend, with the shootings as background context. I could see from the onset that there was indeed going to be tension. Fortunately, Karen Danaher and Hamilton Cloud, who were with the network movie division, felt strongly about keeping historical accuracy in the forefront. Their perspective was to present the facts to the American people. It's a perspective that Cliff Christians indicated was practiced by writer Abby Mann, who believes that, if meticulously handled, docudramas can be a great instrument for public enlightenment.
Which of these two perspectives was going to dominate "Kent State?" I felt very good about the way we were going when I looked at Gerald Green's first script. It appeared to me then that "Kent State" would not be a whitewash of the facts. Green had captured the divisiveness between the townspeople of Kent and the university community. He had captured what William Scranton in the President's Commission on Campus Unrest called the most divisive period in our history since the Civil War.
But were there problems with the network? Yes. Dennis Consedine, an NBC executive, saw the script as being too political and lacking dramatic involvement. Green was asked to redo the script and he refused. The network people kept emphasizing that they wanted to use Michener's source even though they were aware it was factually inaccurate.
A new writer, Richard Kramer, was brought in to polish the dialogue in the summer prior to production. The polish was to meet NBC demands for dramatic license. But what seemed to be arising was what Heisey and Moore identify as temptation to go beyond the truth for dramatic effect. When this occurs fact and fiction are often undifferentiated, creating many variations of factualizing fiction and fictionalizing fact. The problem that I saw was , how does the audience know? How do you know, if you're watching, if the four students were actually at the the ROTC fire, which was a very significant event, or if they weren't? How would we know if the four students were at various rallies, or were not at various rallies, as the movie sometimes suggests? I thought these were crucial questions. If you put people in certain places it seems to suggest, at least to the audience, that what they got was justified in terms of what occurred.
What happened was a series of discussions that ended with my going down to Gadsden, Alabama, where the production as filmed, and having daily fights about script changes. We went though nine script changes; oftentimes I was told that I couldn't meet with the actors.
Furthermore, I was described as a radical who was trying to influence the production. The actors and I would have underground meetings, and I would give them copies of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest and other research. I was basically a negotiating process.
There are also times when you hook onto particular facts to trade off on others later. You must remember we were working with a network that was trying to look for profits. Our goal was to adhere to some type of historical accuracy.
What I would like to do to exemplify this is to share with you some scenes in terms of what the movie did and did not do from a historical perspective. These scenes are going to be commented on later by Dr. Baukus when he discusses the film's overall effects. First, what you're going to see are scenes that zero in on interpersonal relationships between the students, their friends, and parents.
These scenes are interesting when we look at our research findings on the effects of docudrama on our audience. What we found was that relationships were just as important to viewers as the historical aspects. Therefore, it does seen to suggest that the fictionalizing of fact and the factualizing of fiction is evident in "Kent State."
But even though I think it is seriously flawed, "Kent State" did play a very important purpose in educating 18 million people who say it the first time around, and several more million the second time around on cable, of what occurred that day. It brought forth to loving rooms and event that many people have tried to sweep under the rug. And I think it caused people to ask questions. why, for instance, are thousands of pages of the FBI Report on the Kent State incident still in the National Archives and unavailable for public scrutiny for 60 years. There are many questions about this event that remain unanswered. Why did the Guard fire? In my estimation, the real docudrama on Kent State has yet to be seen.
As I have said here, what we're about to see from "Kent State," are fictionalized dramatic scenes emphasizing interpersonal relationships. For instance, one concerns the ROTC fire scene, a real scene of historic dispute.
In the film, the script basically suggests that the students began the fire. But to this day no one, including the FBI, really knows who started the fire. There are strong suggestions that CIA agent provocateurs stated it. My feeling was that it should be a confusing scene because we still don't know who began it. Yet I think there's a feeling among network executives that you've always got to provide answers to the audience. But I believe that you can engage the audience and let them try to figure it out themselves.
We're also showing a scene which suggests that Rick Allen, who played the guardsman Wesly, was being excessively taunted by Alan Canfora, a real person who becomes a composite character -- a character a little bit true, a little bit fictionalized -- in the movie.
You'll see how the film shows Wesly being taunted when in actuality, it never occurred. You'll also see another problematic area in "Kent State" in which all Guardsmen are depicted as young and somewhat befuddled. But if you look at the facts, you'll see that most of the Guardsmen who turned around and fired, then walked back up the hill, then turned around and fired again, had five to six years of riot training. They were older Guardsmen. They were not the young Guardsmen depicted in "Kent State." This is one serious flaw of the movie.
Nonetheless, I think the movie does show that those shootings at Kent State in 1970 were unjustified. it also indicates the tremendous tension after the shooting. If it had not been for the very heroic rhetoric of Professor Glen Frank, we could have had a real massacre; the Guard was getting ready to march again against 300 angry students who had just seen four of their brothers and sisters shot down.
[Audience shown clips of "Kent State" docudrama]
Immediately after the shooting scene, after the distance was clearly demonstrated, there was another attempt to soften the Guard's culpability. A befuddled young Guardsman asks "Did I shoot some kid?" But it was only after negotiation that we got some semblance of history. It was very difficult to get NBC to agree to even one older Guardsmen, who represented to us the 28 people who turned around and fired.
What I would like to do now is to present Bob Baukus, who is going to deal with the effect this film has had on the subjects we tested at Emerson.
The research I'll talk about here is part of an ongoing project that we have at Emerson College News Study Group. We are trying to access the impact of televised drama on viewers.
This first study deals with the "Kent State" docudrama .* To date, we've surveyed about 80 undergraduate students from two Boston area colleges. Our sample consists of 26 males and 53 females. A series of scales concerning their level of prior knowledge of the Kent State incident revealed that 96 percent of our subjects had very little or no previous knowledge of it. Their viewing of the film was basically their first source of awareness about Kent State. Their average age was 21. Our subjects were free to recall any scene in any order, and encouraged to provide as much detail a possible about the things they remembered seeing in the docudrama. we did this to reduce the possibility of any type of prompting on the part of the researchers or the questionnaire. At the conclusion of the videotape, the viewers filled out the questionnaire concerning scenes from three general areas.
First were specific scenes concerning student protest and demonstration; second wee scenes about the characters' personal lives; and third, scenes about university, town, and/or National Guard officials. Then each of the viewers was asked to rate the scenes that they had recalled on a series of four scales that measured their perceptions of each scene's content. They were asked if the scene accurately depicted a historical event, if the scene appeared realistic to them, if the scene appeared true to life. Finally, they were asked to rate the scene if they thought the scene never occurred but was added to the television drama to make the program more interesting and entertaining.
Our first three evaluative scales reflect the subject's perception of the degree of authenticity of the event. The fourth scale represented the perceived degree of dramatic embellishment in the program. This was defined as content that was included in the docudrama for the sake of the storyline, continuity and dramatic appeal. Our viewers recalled about 96 different scenes, and these were content analyzed and clustered into 30 categories and machine analyzed by SPSS [a statistical software package for social service analysis].
As I mentioned, the recalled scenes were divided into three groups and rank ordered in terms of how often they were identified by subjects. In our case, the rank is an indication of the importance of the events depicted in the scenes from the viewer's perspective.
On our first grouping (these are scenes about student protesting and demonstrations), the ones that were most remembered were the initial Kent common meeting at they very beginning of the movie, the incident on Water Street in downtown Kent, the burning of the ROTC building, a sit-in demonstration, and the final killing scene. Those were the five most remembered scenes.
in terms of the characters' personal lives ( and these were very salient to our students), they remembered Alison talking with her boyfriend in the dorm, Bill Schroeder's talks with his father on the phone, Sandy getting a visit from her mother, Jeff playing the drums in the dorm and receiving a call from his mother, and the dinner scene with Jeff and Sandy. Our students related to those scenes very well.
The number one scene they remembered in terms of town and city officials and the national Guard was obviously the killing scene. Other scenes that proved memorable were Governor Rhodes' news conference, the scene with Governor Rhodes in the bathroom, the meeting where the mayor called in the National Guard, and the scene where Jeff talked to the Guard.
There tended to be no significant differences in the ranking of the above scenes because of the viewer's sex, with the exception of the actual killing scene. This was proportionately recalled three times more often by females than males. Of course, it was the most recalled scene overall as well.
We also recorded unsolicited comments made by the viewers. Across all of the recorded scenes, 23 percent oft he comments were prostudent and about 7 percent were proauthority, siding with the actions of the Guard and the governor. The greatest proauthority comments were associated with the burning of the ROTC building. The subjects seemed not to like the destruction of private or public property as depicted in the docudrama. The least proauthority comments were associated with the actual killing scenes. But slightly over 9 percent of the respondents indicated that the Guard was right in their actions. These also were primarily women.
In terms of the historical authenticity of the docudrama, all of the reported scenes were perceived by the viewers to be both very realistic and true to life. The scenes about the characters' personal lives were perceived as accurate, but they were unsure if these scenes were added for dramatic embellishment; they probably felt that was the case. In the scenes concerning the students protesting, the subjects felt the docudrama's depictions were historically correct and not embellished for dramatic purposes.
To sum up our results at this point, the viewers felt that what they were seeing in the docudrama actually occurred in history.
I was an undergraduate student at Kent State when 67 bullets were fired from high powered M1 rifles down a hillside and into a bloody parking lot. Although I had been active during the previous year and during that weekend, I and I think everyone else at Kent did not expect that a dozen men out of the crew of 67 would stop, turn, and fire. It was a shocking experience. As an eyewitness and also a victim, I can say to you that I think it was murder that was committed at Kent State that day, and the docudrama in that very telling scene depicted that very well. Rather than get into all of the details about what happened at Kent State that day, I'd like to comment primarily on the docudrama itself.
first let me say that, in all of our court cases and all of our educational work, the families of the victims have always been true to the vow made after the 1979 federal court settlement in Cleveland. We said at that time that even though the court case was settled, we would continue to bring our case to the American people in hope that there would never be another incident like Kent State.
You can imagine our concern in 1980 when we heard that NBC was going to make this docudrama. we were concerned there might be a whitewash or that the facts would not be completely portrayed.
That summer I was living in New York's Greenwich Village and I had the opportunity to express my concerns to our primary attorney Joseph Kellner. He put me in touch with the producers and directors and I spoke with Ax Keller at length. My fears were alleviated greatly when he mentioned that he had an expert on the Kent State situation to provide technical advice. But I was also concerned; there are quite a few people who portray themselves as experts when in fact they're not. I was very relieved to hear he had Dr. J. Gregory Payne as his technical advisor on the scene. That caused me to feel very comfortable with the presentation. But we still had to wait to see the final film.
In late January, 1981, I was in Cleveland to review the docudrama with members of the May 4 Task Force, an educational student group at Kent State. We took very careful notes during those two hours. Beforehand, we had been especially worried about the final portion which dealt with the shooting incident. And I can assure you that when final shooting scene occurred, it was a chilling experience for us. It was chillingly accurate. That shooting scene separates Kent State from all of the many other protest incidents of that era.
Since 1981, the May 4 Task Force has utilized this videotape often. We have entire segments of the dialogue memorized. The first question that invariably comes up when we show this docudrama is "How accurate is this presentation?"
Factually, I think that there are some inaccuracies as there will inevitably be with any docudrama. A docudrama is not a documentary. It doesn't pretend to present the facts based entirely on live footage.
One inaccuracy in this docudrama is the lack of a historical context. You see at any point that similar incidents occurred all across the country during the first two weeks of May, 1970. Something like 30 ROTC buildings were attacked during that time. When you look at "Kent State," you get the opinion that this happened only at one school when in fact that's not true.
Another key element in the docudrama is the ROTC fire which also contains an inaccuracy. It shows the students swaying back and forth singing The Doors song, "Light My Fire." Even though The Doors were very popular at the time, we weren't singing that song as the building was burning that evening .But this should not take away from the overall accuracy of the ROTC fire event. It did burn under very mysterious circumstances. In fact, my research has uncovered the fact that an FBI agent testified during the Watergate hearings that he was involved with an ROTC fire in Alabama on May 7, 1970, five days after the Kent State fire.
Another inaccuracy included a student who went up to the National Guard and pointed a flag at point -blank range. It would have been very foolish to do that and no one did. We were very aware that students had been cut by the bayonets the night before. So everyone on that day, May 4th, kept their distance.
But the positive points far outnumber the negative ones. For instance, I think it was very appropriate that the ROTC fire was presented in such detail and that it showed the fire started under mysterious circumstances. A lot of people in Ohio, for example, say that the ROTC fire became a justification for the shootings two days later. And I think showing that the students were not ultimately responsible for the fire was a very good point in the film. The bayonet incidents of Sunday evening where it showed the Guardsmen stabbing the students as they tried to run away was also portrayed very well. It also served to clarify a misconception about Kent State. Many people are not aware that students were stabbed by the bayonets on the evening before the shootings in what was the first day of a two-day reign of terror by the National Guard.
Another very accurate portrayal was that of governor Rhodes and the press conference he held on May 3rd, the day before the shootings. He made a fiery law-and-order speech denouncing the students as much worse than Communists and Nazis. This was portrayed very accurately, much to the chagrin of Governor Rhodes.
Finally about May 4th. The movements of the National Guard and the students were portrayed very accurately. It gave you the feeling of 76 guardsmen chasing the students and the hundreds of students that fled from the Guard.
One thing that I though should have been added was the order of fore of the 76 Guardsmen when they reached the top of the hill. That order was indicated in the federal court trial.
Several of the trigger men admitted under oath that they heard a verbal command to fire. I was a little disappointed that it wasn't in the film. but I think it's inferred when you saw the men stop, turn, and fire simultaneously. Those dozen or so men looked like a firing squad, and I think it's very clear that it couldn't have happened without an order.
Overall, the docudrama was a big plus in our efforts to educate the public. Perhaps 20 to 30 million have now seen this, and I've been told that it's available on video cassette from NBC.
I'm very grateful to Dr. Payne, Max Keller, and others from NBC for making a very positive contribution towards educating the public on what happened at Kent State. It's my hope and prayer that the nation will not become polarized again to the point where troopers on a hill will fire 67 rounds during 13 seconds into a crowd of unarmed students. It's our hope that will not happen again. Thank you.
Now onto discussion of "Unnatural Causes," NBC, 1986. We have with us the writer and producer team, Steven Doran and Marty Goldstein.
Preparing for this conference, I was thinking that news and journalism have become the first pass at history. What we do in docudrama is certainly becoming the second pass before we give it to the historians to really look at. We're saddled with an enormous responsibility.
We are the co-producers of "Unnatural Causes," and we wrote the original story upon which John Sayles wrote the final script.
The similarity I found between "Kent State" and "Unnatural causes" concerns the issue of drama and law. In Kent State, they could not determine though law who fired that weapon, what bullet hit what student. So in effect no particular Guardsman was convicted of murder.
We had a similar problem with "Unnatural Causes" in that we couldn't prove that Agent Orange caused cancer or any of the reported birth defects. That's a dramatic problem.
Let me say briefly that "Unnatural Causes" is the story about a Veterans Administration caseworker, a black woman named Maude De Victor. In 1978 Maude made the first link between the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam and cancer related illnesses found later in Vietnam veterans.
She made the first attempts to investigate the case. This is an important distinction because she never did prove it. Nor is it proven in scientific terms to this day. And that, as Steve was indicating, was the major problem. We're doing a show about somebody who investigated something but has not proven it, and the question is, if it's not proven why are we doing the show? In a sense we're taking a strong advocacy position without the full evidence being there. This is really the major problem that the network had. The networks are concerned about profits and the producers are concerned about historical accuracy. In a sense, in "Kent State" you were advocating for a certain version of the truth. So when you investigate a docudrama you must look at the process, the different pressures on all sides. That process results in what actually goes on the air.
I'd like to briefly discuss the evolution of a docudrama using "Unnatural Causes" as an example. I was working in documentaries six years ago and became interested in individuals who would risk their careers for ethical reasons. It was a piece that was called "Second Thoughts," and one of those people I wanted to profile in that documentary was Maude De Victor. I literally called information in Chicago to get her number and told her I was interested in profiling her. We talked for two hours on the phone. my life was changed by that conversation.
I was launched into the wild world of docudrama because I realized the power of this piece could best be told in a dramatic movie for television. I didn't really even know what that meant. I had worked on "Kent State" and knew from Gregory a lot of things he went through. But getting into it yourself is another whole world.
When I spoke with Maude and she described her work, and the problems with the Veterans Administration, she also told me about a very emotional scene that typified her way of relating to the Vietnam veterans. She had become the earth mother for many of these guys; she referred to them as "my boys or my guys." She's a remarkable woman.
But the scene I'm going to show you, and all of "Unnatural Causes" in a sense, wasn't really about Agent Orange or politics. It was about drama. It was about getting a tear in your eye. It was about connecting, about the relationship between a woman who works for the VA, an agency perceived to be the enemy of the veterans, and veterans themselves.
When Maude told me the sequence of events, I said that there's no way a documentary can do justice to this story. And only a handful of people will see it. Whereas if we do it in a docudrama form, we can disguise it, as it were, in drama. Even if the show came in last in the ratings, 15 million people would see it. As it happened, we came in 13th or 14th and 35 million people saw the show in one night, which is extraordinary. All of this was being developed years ago. It takes tat long to get it going.
But the other important point is that Maude worked with several veterans, not just one, in uncovering Agent Orange. It brings up the big question of the composite character, which is our stock and trade. Unfortunately, life doesn't work out in three acts like it is described in feature films. (In TV movies it's called seven acts, everything between the commercials.)
So the central character, Frank Coleman, was a composite character. Based on my interviews with Maude, I put together a vast story treatment and was sorely in need of a professional writer really knew how to distill material. And that's where the alliance with Martin Goldstein began.
Little did he know that I didn't know a whole lot more than he did. I did do the "Eyewitness" series, which was an archetypal docudrama concept in that all the actual text was documented from trial transcripts. That gave me a vast education. In "Eyewitness" I took a 2,000 page transcript and translated it into a 40 page script, of which 25 pages were not trial transcript. So in effect you're not really telling the truth as much as some version of the truth. When you take that next step and start composing characters and fictionalizing incidents, you're still doing the same thing. I think you do that whether you write a newspaper article or historical fiction or even history itself. You're giving a conception of what you think is really there.
This involves the ethical issues Greg is talking about. It's not unethical because you do it. It's how you do it and with what sense of responsibility to that particular conception of the truth that decides whether you're doing it well or poorly.
In this particular case, we were trying to make the point that Maude De Victor had the trust of the Vietnam vets. This particular scene I'm about to show you shows that bond of trust between Maude and the vets, but there was no particular vet in real life that was going to really do what we needed for the story. Rather it was several different ones that Maude knew over the years of her work. We had compressed about six months of that into what we though were the bookends of the story. We created a composite fictionalized vet who we called Frank Coleman.
Let me add that the main person that Maude did work with was a fellow who didn't even live in the same city; he lived in Connecticut. And the extraordinary thing is that they never met each other. He was dying of cancer. That was an ethical question right there. Marty said we've got to have a composite character. He's going to have to represent five different vets. We can't have an effective story where two main characters never see each other.
We couldn't use the name of one of the real characters that this relationship was based on if we were going to change their relationship. We found out later through our dealing with NBC Broadcast Standards that they would not have let us do that; it would have been too much fictionalization under the guise of a true character. In the end it doesn't make that much difference if what we're telling is the truth. The truth is a bold value judgment that people who make docudramas make.
By the way, Marty and I would like to think that one of our greatest claims to national television fame was when the word tit was used on television in a scene from "Unnatural Causes."
It's an interesting experience to be in the room with grown men and women arguing for hours whether you're going to be able to use that word or not. We found ourselves horse trading on serious data of national importance such as, "We'll give you four birth defects rather than three birth defects if you give us the right to use tit." This is what we do for a living.
But there's a point to it all. if there's an emotional honesty to a scene and a way someone would actually express something, you could lose a lot by simply changing a word.
But there's no one single answer to what's right or wrong. Docudramas are an art form, and you just have to work within the ground rules that are given. I discovered that there is a system whereby somebody is making the decisions on what a network is going to let you do. Three or four years can make a big difference on what kinds of standards they're going to hold you to. What you can do in 1981, as Reagan is elected and there's a concern about not doing something anti-American, may be very different than what you can do in 1983 when we started this project, in 1985 when we finished the script, and in 1986 when it aired.
We're still a little stunned it got made at all. to get a show like this on at the height of Reagan's popularity is staggering. We know that it went to the highest levels at NBC, which was then owned by RCA. We fell into the black hole of the abyss called corporate review for eight months. Our careers were on hold because this was the first picture that we've done. There was a lot of pressure.
I also want to talk a little about the problem of causation. we could not say, for instance, that Agent Orange caused cancer. This was a problem because it was what the movie was all about. So what do you do?
You do it, and I think this really sold the project, through a story of somebody who was advocating for the vets, which was Maude De Victor's job as a veteran's benefits counselor. She raised the question that something happened to these guys because of the spraying. He job was to say, if this might be the cause, you ought to investigate it or compensate the vets until you prove that it wasn't. The benefit of the doubt goes to the veterans. We were advocating for a point of view, giving voice to this constituency of veterans.
What the network is concerned about is, what if you're wrong? What if Maude De Victor wasn't right? Or, how are you going to decide if it's true or not?
Some time after we had gotten the beginnings of a script, Judge Weinstein decided the class action law suit on Agent Orange. The decision was in May, 1984 and we got copies of the written decision in January, 1985. What is essentially said was that we're giving money to these veterans but they haven't really proven the case in a certain kind of court litigation.
What NBC did by using the decision's standard was protect themselves against being accused of being irresponsible. They were saying if this is the standard, what we did during this time and place is accurate to what we knew at that time. That set the ground rules.
There is a scene which we call the voice of NBC scene. It kept all the lawyers happy. It's a sense that gives the rules to Maude and Frank. It tells them what they're up against.
This was a scene that was mandated by Broadcast Standards. It fits in fairly well, but it was given to us. It is also a scene which never actually happened. There is no Dr. glass; he's a fictional character. What he tells her corresponds to the enormous number of people Maude spoke with over the telephone to get her information.
In this scene, the doctor is discussing the problem of proving causation between Agent Orange and the vets' cancer. He tells Maude there were many chemical companies spraying many forms of Agent Orange in many different places. And there were perhaps millions of vets who may or may not have been exposed to it. It doesn't mean, he says, that you can't prove causation between agent Orange and any specific vet, but he tells Maude it will take carefully collected data to do so. He's laying out the problems in determining in a scientific test case who is your test group and who is in your control group. We also wanted to put it in relatively understandable terms, as if a doctor were explaining it to a layperson, which is who Maude Essentially is.
As I was responsible for the film's historical accuracy, I had to read the journal article and get the actual quote from the doctor. Just before we were ready to shoot I realized that Dr. Courtney was a woman, not a man. I had to make some script changes, but that scene does effectively address the problem of causation.
Let's add one more insider's view, that of Rick Allen, who was an actor in both "Kent State" and "Unnatural Causes."
when actors get cast in films they get thrust in after all work has been done by the writers, and, in films like "Kent State," the events have already happened. All the basic work has been done except the filming, editing, and showing of the movie. And so my responsibility is very individual.
In both films I played fictional characters being depicted in real situations. In some ways that's tougher than playing a real person. When you're playing a real character you know what your limitations are, what research to do. You've got somebody to study.
So when I found out I had the audition I went to the New York Public Library and did as much reading on Kent State as I could. I auditioned for four or five different roles in the script and I ended up with the part of Wesley, the guardsman who's sweet and nice and doesn't do anything bad to anybody.
When I got the part I went down to the Armory in Greenwich Village and did everything but join up with the National Guard. I went through the process of being interviewed and I learned you don't get drafted in to the Guard; you join. And my character joined to avoid going to Vietnam. I got as many books as I could on Kent State. I got tapes of the music that was being played then. And when we got down to where the film was being shot in Gadsden, Alabama, we did something which is unusual for a film. We had about two weeks of rehearsal with the whole cast and crew. I got to see Richard Kramer make changes in the script to make it more dramatically interesting for the audience. There was fear, I think, that the audience would be alienated because there wasn't a hero they could relate to.
As I say, all of us played fictional Guardsmen. None of the real Guardsmen could be portrayed. some of us had to have our character names changed two or three times because there were real Guardsmen with the names that our characters had. They were worried about lawsuits and that sort of thing.
They weren't quite sure what to do with our characters. One day Jim Goldstone, the director, asked the five or six of us who had the lead Guardsmen roles to have an improvisation. We were all scrambling as much as possible because the writer was there and we were hoping to get more lines. This improvisation had the strongest effect on who the characters ended up being and that didn't necessarily have anything to do with what happened at Kent State. I think my character was supposed to represent a young Guardsman who didn't know what he was doing. Three of the guardsmen characters were like that.
But what was interesting about making the film was seeing the way all of us, not only the actors, did our own research and helped make the projects as truthful as possible. Being part of "Kent State" made me have a strong feeling of responsibility of an artist to his work. The gravity of the project has an effort on the work that you do and how you feel about it.
By the way, Rick played one of our healthy vets in "Unnatural Causes." That is, he was exposed to Agent Orange and had no ill effects. There was literally a percentage of guys we could show who got sick or stayed healthy after exposure to Agent Orange.
Rick is one of the people we traded off for the tit scene.
Originally NBC told us we had too many guys who were sick. One more had to be healthy so we added a Rick scene where Ritter asks Rick if he's having any problems. And he goes, "Never felt better."
Greg also wanted me to mention one of the things that happened during this shooting. Actors can really get into their roles, sometimes to a ridiculous point. All of us that were cast out of New York were theater actors and knew each other. when we went down to Gadsden, those of us cast as Guardsmen noticed that not many people were talking to us. We were isolated among ourselves.
At one point two of the actors who were cast as students came up to talk with us. They didn't know we were actors. They thought we were cast locally. When we had all our hair cut and got 40 pounds of equipment ( we had to rehearse in costume before anybody else because we had gas masks, grenades, and guns to deal with), people began to get even farther away from us. As Guardsmen we sat at our own table. The rest of the actors wouldn't come over, and when we would go over to their table the conversation would almost stop. One actress who played a radical said to me, "Oh Rick, I don't want to hurt your feelings but you laying the role you're playing, I just can't even talk to you."
In a way it was very frustrating but I think it ended being very helpful. The Guardsmen really stuck together and the shyness that showed on the screen as we talked to the students was real.
We have a third insider view for your consideration as part of the overall issue of docudrama and its role in history. He is Ed Hume, the screenwriter for "The Day After."
First of all, I don't think that "The Day After" is a docudrama. We haven't really defined this animal completely. I view "The Day After" as a work of total fiction, which made it a lot easier for me. I would also like to add that I'm now working on something that I think does qualify as a docudrama. I'm doing a transcription of Common Ground, a book that was published last year about the Boston desegregation crisis. Most of the remarks I've listened to this morning I'm feeling very keenly as I embark on a screenplay dealing with the real lives of 50 people.
While I say that "The Day After" is a work of fiction, there are important points to be made about that kind of fiction. It was important that it was grounded in reality. Even though this has never happened, it worked only if one could accept the reality of the world at the time that the story took place. That took a fair amount of conscientious research for which I could be faulted. It was quite a burden and one that had to be done honorably.
By the way, "The Day After" was the first movie that allowed us to show a diaphragm on screen. It is ironic because it was about the only point that standards and Practices brought up with us.
How would you characterize the attitude of NBC towards the making of "The Day After?"
I think the network intended to do a piece with integrity. They didn't quibble about the number of corpses. If you're going to deal with nuclear war, you're going to deal with it. I'm not saying that it was done as realistically a sit could have been. As far as the network policy was concerned, it was hands off. They were going to do what we wanted to do. The network's reaction is different in every case. You just never know.
I'd like to comment about the concept of psychic numbing as it pertains to our research on docudrama. Some people believe that there's a narcotizing dysfunction in watching things such as docudramas. In other words, you watch a program and feel a vicarious participation in the dramatized social or political issue. But you don't really have an outlet available to take some kind of action. So some people tend to have their fears deactivated. docudrama, especially politically oriented docudrama like "The Day After," cold actually demobilize a person's participation.
Do you think of docudramas as writing history?
I have to accept at the outset that I'm not writing history. When you're doing a so-called docudrama, you're doing a combination of three things: you're articulating history; you're creating a piece of propaganda, because you're taking a specific point of view; and you're creating a piece of entertainment.
I've taken my lead on the film "Common Ground" from Anthony Lucas, the author of the book, who has been roundly criticized for not telling the whole story of the Boston desegregation case. According to Mr. Lucas, that was not his intent. He's filtered a lot of it through the lives of three families. In my view, that's the book's strength. That's my dramatic approach to the film. Instead of doing the whole history of the period in seven hours, I'm telling the story of three families. So the event is in the background. They're ordinary people reacting to the event. I'm not overwhelmed by having to tell history, if you will.
What is the point of showing "Kent State," a film about a 1970 student incident, to a 1980's audience?
I think the value in the 1980's and the 1990's for this type of project is that people can learn a lesson by looking at the past with the hope that if they're in a similar situation, they can make a wiser decision.
I'd like to add one comment on the Kent docudrama. I think it's often misperceived as an anti-war demonstration. As Alan can attest, there was a great deal of sentiment against the war. But by Monday at Kent the issue was the occupation of the campus by the National guard. It got down to basic constitutional rights-freedom of assembly, free speech, etc.
As a professor at Emerson College in Communication Studies, one of the reasons I find "Kent State" exciting and stimulating as a piece of protest is to look at the use of language and how it brought about a fatal response. As Alan said, Governor Rhodes was using that situation to strengthen his political prospects. He used words which were interpreted by the Guardsmen to mean martial law was in effect ; that they were to "eradicate the problem." Now if someone tells you to use any force necessary to eradicate a problem, I think that person in command shares responsibility for any ensuing fatal actions.
I think what Alan said was right on target. What we're hoping to do is to convince politicians that oftentimes the rhetoric goes beyond the 30 second spot, beyond the photo opportunity. I would remind you that President Reagan also used the Kent State incident in 1970 for his own political purpose sin California. His response to the shooting was, if it takes a blood bath., let's get it over with. I would hope as President he's learned something from that incident. It has many lessons for each and every one of us. And I think the first one begins with the language that we use and the responsibility it carries with it.
Let me offer an observation in conclusion. I've been deeply instructed today as I've heard our guests comment on docudrama.
I think we've made headway in the area of artistic integrity by raising a number of questions about docudramas. What is this symbolic form? How is it distinct from news and documentary melodrama? To what degree ought we to promote it as a source of serious public commentary? and if so, what is its nature and logic? We are making progress in identifying it as an enormous possibility in the world of television and contemporary communications. Are we using it responsibly in indicating the kinds of debates in the public order that fit the Jeffersonian model?
There are several questions that still must be asked regarding the nature of truth telling. All of us realize that a positivistic view of truth as accuracy alone is insufficient. We still need an enormous amount of work in putting the facts in a meaningful, realistic context. Is there such a thing as true history, and what an historians bring to our understanding of it? From my interest in ethics, I know that to what degree docudrama must be constrained by the principle of truth telling continues to need the kind of work we began today.
There are two other areas that struck me as we were talking to which I would invite your further commentary and research: the nature of visual literacy and the effects of technology.
What does it mean that we live in a visual world and therefore must become literate about it? Can we continue to assume that our audience cannot make a basic distinction between news and documentaries, melodrama and docudrama? If not, is that something we ought to be teaching each other in the educational setting? It does indicate to me that in terms of education, information and public opinion, we must call on those in the schools and in the political order to contribute to that overall model as well.
And area number two: technology. Is there something about the nature of television as a medium that while it enhances the possibilities of docudrama it s undermining the purposes of authentic docudrama?
Contrary to what the New York Times prints, I trust that if we find ways of handling docudramas artistically and ethically, they can amplify the public debate.
Please help me thank not only our panelists but also Emerson College and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This has been a good demonstration of why we need scriptwriters, actors, producers, and academia working together to come to understand an exciting new art form.