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The great debate on docudramas begins once more

We almost did it. We almost managed to make it through a full television season without a rip-roaring debate about docudrama -- that much-maligned but highly popular formula built on the premise that the line between fact and fiction should be blurred.

But now, in this last week of new programs for the 1994-1995 television year, come HBO's "Indictment: The McMartin Trial," ABC's "She Stood Alone: The Tailhook Scandal" and NBC's "Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story."

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Big names, big budgets, big controversy -- especially for "McMartin," which airs Tuesday, and will be repeated Saturday, May 31, June 5 and June 8. The executive producers are Oliver Stone, of "JFK" fame, and Abby Mann, whose career ranges from "Judgment at Nuremberg" to "The Atlanta Child Murders." Mann and his wife, Myra, wrote the script for "McMartin," which stars James Woods, Mercedes Ruehl and Lolita Davidovich.

It's the story of California's widely publicized $16 million McMartin preschool trial, which ended in 1990 with dismissal of child molestation charges against the family and teachers at the school. Stone and Mann have made it into a compelling and thought-provoking film.

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ABC's "Tailhook," which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2), isn't in the same league as "McMartin." But it, too, boasts an impressive roster, with Hal Holbrook, Rip Torn, Gail O'Grady ("NYPD Blue"), and Baltimore native Bess Armstrong ("My So-Called Life"). O'Grady plays Paula Coughlin, the Navy lieutenant who was assaulted by her male colleagues while attending the 1991 Tailhook convention.

NBC did not send preview cassettes of "Liz," the first part of which airs tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), because it was worried that a copy of the film, which stars Sherilyn Fenn, might get into the hands of Taylor's lawyers. The network wanted to avoid a pre-emptive injunction, which tells you something about the world some docudramas live in. Get the ratings first -- then let the lawyers slug it out over truth vs. slander.

The great docudrama debate is not a recent development. It's been going on since the mid-1970s, when docudramas started popping up on the networks' schedules -- especially during "sweeps" ratings periods. The most common critical response during the past 20 years has been a combination of contempt and alarm about how docudramas are affecting viewers' sense of history.

That's the position I have long championed with conviction and a certain sense of moral outrage. But now, looking back at some of the significant television films made under the banner of docudrama, that position seems a bit too simplistic and sanctimonious. It seems reasonable to reconsider.

"Roots," "Holocaust," "Friendly Fire," "Eleanor and Franklin," and "The Missiles of October" are some of the more widely known, high-quality early examples of the form. "Roe vs. Wade," "The Final Days," "Murder in Mississippi" and "Separate but Unequal" are a few more recent and memorable titles.

The current controversy over "McMartin" is representative of the larger concern that engulfs most docudramas:

It's entertainment that wraps itself in the mantle of journalism or history. Its mandate is to be compelling, not necessarily true.

For those not familiar with the McMartin case, some background:

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In July 1983, Manhattan Beach, Calif., police received a call from the mother of a 2 1/2 -year-old boy. She told police her son had a "red bottom" and was saying "something about a man named Ray at his nursery school," the McMartin School. A doctor said the boy seemed fine, although the redness could be consistent with sodomy.

The boy's mother later expanded her story, saying that Ray Buckey, a teacher and member of the family that operated the school, had sodomized her son while he stuck the boy's head in a toilet. The allegations escalated exponentially after police sent a letter to 200 parents of preschoolers asking if they had seen or heard anything suspicious.

In February 1984, a reporter at KABC-TV picked up the story and took it coast to coast -- proclaiming that 60 preschoolers had been molested and raped by the teachers at McMartin.

The kicker in the KABC reports was the allegation that the children were subjected to satanic rituals and frightened into silence after watching animals being mutilated and killed.

Police eventually arrested Ray Buckey; his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey; his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey; his grandmother, Virginia McMartin; and three teachers. They were charged with more than 100 counts of child molestation, and all were denied bail at first. Ray Buckey and his mother were denied bail for four years while the Los Angeles district attorney's office prosecuted them.

With Woods playing defense attorney Danny Davis, Oliver Stone and Abby Mann have crafted a searing indictment of the media, some parents, one of the child abuse experts and the Los Angeles district attorney's office, especially lead prosecutor Lael Rubin (Mercedes Ruehl).

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The flak is now flying.

The two most vocal critics of "McMartin" are the Children's Civil Rights fund and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. The former consists of parents of some of the preschoolers involved in the original allegations. The latter is self-described as a nonprofit corporation founded in 1987 to "ensure that interdisciplinary professionals in the field of child maltreatment communicate effectively and are appraised of the latest information relevant to their work." The Chicago-based group claims 5,000 members.

Both groups claim the film "sensationalizes and distorts" the case and will make it more difficult for childrens' claims of abuse to be treated seriously.

The Children's Civil Rights Fund, in a letter to newspaper editors, grounds its attack of "McMartin" on a 1985 Time magazine critique of Mann's "The Atlanta Child Murders," a CBS docudrama that suggested Wayne Williams was innocent in that case involving serial murders.

The crux of the criticism: "In the minds of much of the public, the reality of what really happened may more likely be what they saw enacted on TV. That is not history or journalism, but crusading entertainment, with facts carefully organized to sustain a neat storyline. . . . Even under the best of circumstances, docudrama represents an awkward alliance between fact and fiction."

In telephone interviews last week, both Mann and William R. Greenblatt, the executive producer of "Tailhook," acknowledged there are danger zones in doing docudramas -- such as composite characters and telling an essentially nonfiction tale in a way that's compelling enough to compete with fiction.

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"Tailhook" will carry the following disclaimer: "Tonight's film is a dramatization based on interviews, court documents, official reports and other published accounts. Some names have been changed and composites used."

How do viewers know what's fact and what's fiction?

The truth is, they often don't.

Although Mann says he has used such devices as composite characters and invented dialogue in other productions, he says everything in "McMartin" is true.

"I have always tried to be responsible," Mann said. "At times I thought, 'Why not do it ["McMartin"] as fiction?' But, as incredible as it is, this really happened. And so, we felt we had to document it entirely as it was. In this film, everything in it actually happened."

In fact, neither the Children's Civil Rights Fund nor the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children has challenged the factual content of his film. Instead, their complaints center on what he has left out -- a complaint often made against journalists and historians.

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"Whether it's German war guilt ['Judgment at Nuremberg'] or the system that resulted in the McMartin trial, . . . I like to do things that will have an impact on society and make people who are looking at it say, 'I never thought of it that way before,' " said Mann.

I'm not ready to flat-out endorse docudramas -- even those on the high end of the truth scale. The catalog of sins committed by the makers of docudramas in hopes of creating better entertainment is too long and egregious to be ignored.

I remember, for example, the answer the producer of the NBC docudrama "Peter the Great" gave me when I asked him why he had the Russian czar meeting his wife, Catherine, and falling in love with her as a teen-ager rather than portraying the truth, which was that they met late in Peter's life.

"This is a miniseries," he said, as if I'd asked the dumbest question he had ever heard. "You can't have your leading lady entering on the last reel."

When I went for double-dumb and asked why the miniseries ignored the fact that Peter was an epileptic, the producer said, "Epilepsy is just too depressing for a prime-time audience."

So much for the facts.

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But "McMartin" apparently doesn't play fast and loose with the facts. Furthermore, Mann's film appears to be one of those docudramas -- much like Stone's "JFK" -- that is capable of leading many viewers to question what they thought they knew to be true.

As Lawrence E. Mintz, associate professor of popular culture in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, puts it: "Docudrama is often a way of trying to rethink or reorder experience."

Is that automatically bad?

Journalism is often called "the first draft of history." But in the last 10 years or so, a growing tabloidization of American media has resulted in that draft often being exploitative, sensational or wrong.

The reporting on "McMartin" appears to have been just such a case.

"That's the thing about McMartin, like so many stories in recent years," said Mann. "It totally dominated the headlines for a while, but then the media moved on, and it was never resolved. I'd like to think of this film as a second draft of history."


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