ABC 9-11 Television Movie Draws Criticisms over Accuracy, Politics
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JEFFREY BROWN: September 11 itself may be the day that changed everything. But a so-called docudrama on the events leading up to that day has come under fire for changing a little too much.
“The Path to 9/11″ aired Sunday and Monday nights on ABC. It originally claimed to be based on the findings of the 9/11 Commission. And Thomas Kean, a co-chair of the commission, served as an executive producer of the film.
But several scenes raised the ire of those portrayed, including former President Clinton, and, in one instance, American Airlines. One scene involved former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. It showed him passing on an opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden.
ACTRESS: All right, now, excuse me, sir. You are the national security adviser. Can’t you give the order?
ACTOR: Look, George, if you feel confident, you can present your recommendation to the president yourself.
JEFFREY BROWN: This never happened, according to several of the officials depicted, and the filmmakers themselves said they had improvised the scene.
After complaints from Clinton administration officials, ABC did remove the original end of the scene, which showed Berger hanging up on then-CIA Director George Tenet.
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, President of the United States: I want to you listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another scene altered after complaints implied that President Clinton was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal to take action against bin Laden.
Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush White Houses, issued this statement: “Some of the most outrageous scenes were removed after a recent senior-level review. What remains, however, is not the true story, as told by the 9/11 Commission.”
American Airlines has also registered its displeasure with the film, specifically regarding this scene, which shows the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, waved through a security check by an American Airlines desk agent at Boston’s Logan Airport, despite a security warning.
ACTRESS: Shouldn’t he be searched?
ACTRESS: No, just hold their bags until they board.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, it was an agent of another airline at a different airport who issued Atta his boarding documents.
ANNOUNCER: Due to subject matter, viewer discretion is advised.
JEFFREY BROWN: ABC did air a disclaimer several times during the film, saying it was based on several sources, not only the 9/11 Commission, and contained fictionalized scenes.
For his part, Governor Kean said on the ABC program "This Week" that, despite the furor, the movie made a positive contribution.
THOMAS KEAN, Former Co-Chairman, 9/11 Commission: The whole film leads into -- because it follows the plot for six years of the Clinton administration, and six or eight months of the Bush administration. Both administrations are faulted.
And, in the end, I think you -- you are -- you're led to our recommendations. You're led at the end of the film to, why haven't we done more at this point...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Host, "This Week": Richard...
THOMAS KEAN: ... to make the world safer and to make the United States safer?
JEFFREY BROWN: But, yesterday, Kean's 9/11 Commission co-chair, Lee Hamilton, questioned the whole idea of dramatizing the commission's work, saying: "It suggests to me, news and entertainment are getting dangerously intertwined. And I do not think that is good for the country, because an event of this consequence is very hard to understand."
Now some thoughts about all this from Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the university of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication -- he is writing a book on the intersection of news media and entertainment -- and Robert Thompson, cultural historian and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Mr. Delli Carpini, let me start with you and maybe start with a definition.
What exactly is a docudrama, and does everyone agree on its definition?
MICHAEL DELLI CARPINI, Dean, University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication: Well, there's not a single definition that we have for docudramas.
But I think the best way to think of them is that they are fictionalized accounts of real-world people, events, or issues.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, OK. So you watched last night.
DELLI CARPINI: Mmm-hmm.
JEFFREY BROWN: Starting from that point of view of what -- of that definition, I mean, what did you see?
DELLI CARPINI: Well, I saw several things.
I saw, at one level, a very serious effort to provide the public, including a part of the public that does not often follow the news, with what happened that led up to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
On the other hand, I also saw a docu -- a docudrama that was filled with spin, and that also had factual inaccuracies. And, so, I would call it a mixed story. I'm not opposed to the idea -- in fact, I support the idea of using fiction to educate people about real-world events. But I am concerned that there aren't rules or norms for people to -- who do these kinds of docudramas to -- to follow the way we have for journalists.
JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Thompson, what did you see, watching this film?
ROBERT THOMPSON, Founding Director, Syracuse University's Bleier Center For Television and Popular Culture: Well, we -- we have to remember, I think, that a docudrama is a subset of fiction, as opposed to a documentary, which we think more of as a subset of journalism, of history.
And, by definition, these things are never going to live up to the criteria of truth and what really -- what really happened. I think what's happening is, because this subject matter is still so central to our civic life, that we are trying to apply an assessment of this docudrama according to the criteria of journalism and reportage. And it's not going to stand up to that.
I think why people were so worried, though, is that, no matter how many disclaimers you have got -- and, if you read that disclaimer, it says: We have fictionalized this. We're messing with characters. We're messing with time. We're messing with dialogue.
They could have put Mickey Mouse in the White House in that documentary, and they would have been covered by that -- by that disclaimer. But the fact is, many people learn about history movies, and I'm not just talking about naive people.
I think probably you and I are walking around with a lot of ideas about the Civil War or World War II or World War I that we don't remember where they came, and they might be traceable back to movies we saw as kids.
Ronald Reagan, when he was president, oftentimes referred to history that was traceable back to movies he has seen. That's the worry, is, people who don't watch CNN, who are not following the path to 9/11, may get their first packaging of this material from a fictionalized docudrama, and it may be a much more memorable one that if they had bothered to sit down and read the -- the 9/11 Commission report.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Delli Carpini, you just raised the question of rules. Are there no rules? Are there -- are there obligations for filmmakers when tackling this kind of material?
DELLI CARPINI: Well, there are no formal rules and very few informal rules.
One of the things about docudramas is that they're made by the entertainment divisions of networks, as opposed to the news divisions. The only thing that keeps them in check is public opinion, the kind of furor that you see around this issue, and the desire of major networks to not alienate too many people.
I was a little surprised to see this aired on ABC, in part because it was more blatant than most docudramas, in the way in which it had a particular spin that was attached to it. And I don't want to overstate that. I think there was a good-faith effort in parts of it to provide an account of the 9/11 Commission report.
But it's impossible to have seen that movie and not see the particular biases that were in it regarding where -- what the root causes of the terrorist attacks were.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Thompson, we saw -- excuse me -- Governor Kean seemed to -- from what he said, he seemed to see it as a chance to popularize the findings of the commission, and to get it out to the public.
And then we see -- we hear Lee Hamilton saying that it's a dangerous mix. How do you parse the pros and cons of the docudrama?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, it is true that a docudrama is a delivery system to a much wider audience than a big, dense, turgid report.
At the same time, if you want to get the message out to a population, a fictional docudrama is the probably not the best way to do it. There was talk of distributing these tapes to schools to teach them about the path to 9/11.
I think probably the best way to teach schoolchildren about what led us to September 11 is not a fictionalized movie. That doesn't mean there should be rules.
"Richard III," "Henry V," these are wonderful Shakespearian plays. They are, however, lousy history.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Delli Carpini, how do you answer that question, parsing the pros and cons?
DELLI CARPINI: I think that, unlike many people who look at this issue, I'm a supporter of the use of entertainment and fiction as a way of educating the public.
I think we do learn from lots of different sources. I would not want that to be the only way we learn, but I think it's an important part. But I do think this is not "Henry VIII." This is a story that's aired on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that is for a wide audience, and that claims to be based on the 9/11 Commission report.
And I think there are obligations, informal, if not formal, on the part of writers and directors and producers and television companies, to get their facts right, and to be more transparent on the views that are being expressed in -- in the movie in this case.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just stay with you.
There -- you know, there have been reports in recent days about ties between the filmmakers and conservative causes or organizations. And I would quickly add, it's not quite clear what that means exactly, or what those ties would mean. But, because it has been so much discussed, in what ways would that matter to you, and perhaps in what ways wouldn't it matter?
DELLI CARPINI: Well, I think it matters a lot.
And the ties are both with the director and with the screenwriter, and they have to do with involvements with organizations that have, as part of their mission, bringing more conservative views into mainstream media. That's fine.
But what the audience needs to know and what needs to be up front with people as they view it, if they're going to watch it critically and understand what's being said to them, is that that's the case. The simple disclaimer that was presented that says this is kind of based on the truth and on the 9/11 Commission, but we played with it, and so you don't take it seriously, or that this is just entertainment, is not enough anymore, because that cat's out of the bag.
This is a major way that we learn about public events. And, so, I would put on the -- the network a very strong obligation to let its audience know that they are getting a film that comes from a point of view, even if there is an effort to make that point of view more subtle, and even if there's an effort to educate at the same time, just as we would expect a news show to tell us where their information is coming from, is there a bias, is this an opinion, or is this an objective presentation of things.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Thompson, how important is the background of the filmmakers for you?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, I mean, the reason this is more of a problem than, let's say, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that you knew from the instant that movie started, until the second it ended, that here was a guy with a point of view, and a strong one, and all -- everything he was doing was to the rhetorical end of convincing us of that point of view.
This was presented much more as simply a recreation of the facts. On the other hand, I'm a little uncomfortable with this idea of having to put the political credentials of everybody that tells a fictional story. What makes this unique to anything else that we have seen is the controversy behind that "Reagans" movie, Reagan's administration was already over.
Many of these other movies about Amy Fisher or JonBenet, or whatever. The fact is, this was about something that is still right smack in the middle of our political and civic lives, and close to a big election. And that's what makes, I think, this a much more dicey conversation than we would normally have about just another docudrama, with all of the license that it takes.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Thompson and Michael Delli Carpini, thank you both very much.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Thank you.