VERDICT BY DOCUDRAMA : 'The Atlanta Child Murders'--History Done Wrong

In one sense, it is instructive to grasp the weakness of Abby Mann's defense of "The Atlanta Child Murders" (Calendar, March 3): Bob Woodward, a pair of Georgia jurists and Camille Bell--the mother of a victim and paid consultant to the show--do not write an impressive brief. The forensic evidence against Wayne Williams remains persuasive, and the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. But like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of President Kennedy, this episode in the gruesome history of serial murders is likely to beguile conspiracy theorists and propaganda buffs for many seasons.

Yet in another, more important, sense it is especially disturbing. Like Cyclops forging the thunderbolts of Zeus, another one-eyed monster, television, regularly demonstrates its incapacity for the power it so clearly wields. The aptitude of television to inform remains a matter of debate; its ability to misinform must be evident to any viewer. And the docudrama, with its synthetic repertoire and facts of convenience, is the most dangerous vehicle by which television can pervert, conceal and mislead.

Of course, as Carlyle said, history is a distillation of rumor. But history is a volatile thing, too, and the lessons of history are seldom understood (if they are ever learned at all) by the people who live in their midst. The world grows more, not less, complicated, and a sense of the careless ease with which impressions are formed and conclusions are drawn must guide the hand of anyone who mixes fiction with fact. Shakespeare, who never won an Academy Award, much less an Emmy, understood this well: His histories were set in the distant past, and his biases were as much a part of folklore as politics.

In television, the reverse is true. It is politics--and a particularly glib, superficial kind of partisanship--that writes the stories. The dramas do not eliminate history; "history," if that is the word for it, serves the drama. And any resemblance between the conflicts of our time and the mythology of prime time is often coincidental.

In that sense, docudramas present a particularly insular kind of fear: This is an America awash in suspicion, in the thrall of powerful bigots, malevolent prosecutors, malignant bureaucrats, lunatic generals, half-slave, half-free. Indeed, this is Main Street as seen from Sunset Boulevard. Such imagery, in principle, may be harmless, but it is the power, and to a degree the arrogance, of the medium that makes it dangerous.

I was intrigued by Mann's self-conscious insistence on the "truth," yet the most compelling criticism of "The Atlanta Child Murders" was the degree to which it played with those facts about which there is general agreement. He seems to have relied exclusively on that handful of victims' parents who were unhappy with the prosecution and conviction of Wayne Williams. Camille Bell, in particular, was a ubiquitous presence in the press long before Williams was apprehended, and her well-publicized (but purely speculative) insistence on official negligence and misconduct contributed to the atmosphere of hysteria and uncertainty.

For that matter, the depiction of a callous, sensationalized press was wholly imaginary; most parents, anxious to alert the community, regarded the media as their ally, not their adversary.

But most egregious of all was the selective use of the transcript from Wayne Williams' trial. Abby Mann was careful to include declarations that supported his thesis, but was equally careful to exclude those arguments and testimony that ratified the prosecution's case. This is what is called the sin of omission: A "truth" that relies on deception is not a fallacy but a falsehood.

To which was added, of course, the tincture of regional bias, a habit to which Hollywood is persistently addicted. The choice of an Atlanta case was no doubt deliberate. How much easier to depict Southern injustice when the public response has been so well-conditioned. The good guys (Martin Sheen, Jason Robards) spoke in impeccable Brentwoodese; the bad guys alternately drawled and bayed in lynch-mob tones.

Drama and history may be easily mixed, but history and television seem unable to reconcile their conflicting demands. The little box thrives on scenes, not statistics, and the drudgery of events is not the stuff of which ratings are made.

History is complex; it cannot be so easily divided between star turns and commercials. If a great injustice was done in Atlanta, why dilute the message by garbling the truth? Perhaps the message was unworthy after all. Perhaps the messenger knows the medium best of all. That is the difference between a publicist and a dramatist.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World