Topic: Sports & Entertainment
“The Guilty Men,” Reputation, and Ethics
Following in the ethically muddy boot-prints of Oliver Stone, a documentary called “The Guilty Men” alleged that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was involved in the planning of the Kennedy assassination, and, incredibly, his own sister’s death. The British-made documentary ran on the History Channel, and Johnson’s family and former associates are furious. They have pointed out that this is a “theory” notably devoid of supporting facts, and for LBJ to have his good name smeared in this way is offensive and outrageous.
There is, in fact, little they can do. The First Amendment and a string of court cases have made it clear that film-makers, artists, novelists and historians have a right to put forth such harmful creations. Never mind that they cause undeserved, unjust and often lasting damage to the reputations of public figures. Never mind that they mislead the gullible, the trusting and the unread. Historical hit jobs like “The Guilty Men” and Stone’s JFK are profitable, and they will be with us always.
But they are still wrong. The protection of the First Amendment doesn’t cleans the ethical stain from lies or innuendo masquerading as truth, intemperate and irresponsible attacks on reputations that took a lifetime to build, and reckless injury caused to innocent family members. The History Channel, which showed the program, is complicit in allowing it to air. The channel had an obligation to determine whether genuine inquiry or naked sensationalism was behind “The Guilty Men.” It should have examined the film for accuracy and the quality of its scholarship. The objection to an unflattering docudrama like “The Reagans,” which CBS abandoned after being pummeled by Reaganites, is that as fiction “based on” fact, it tends to confuse the public record. That is genuine gray area; it is right on the line ethically. But “The Guilty Men” was presenting its arguments as fact. If President Johnson’s supporters produce a film that exposes its misrepresentations, the History Channel should be eager to run it.