Critics say miniseries lets Bush off the hook

September 11 Remembered

September 08, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Fact or fiction?

That question is at the heart of a heated controversy over the miniseries The Path to 9/11, which traces the events leading to the Sept. 11 attacks and is set to air on ABC on Sunday and Monday.

Members of the Clinton administration, including former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, have protested vociferously in recent days that the miniseries inaccurately blames Clinton officials for not going after Osama bin Laden when they had the chance.

"It asserts as fact things that are not fact," Albright wrote Tuesday in a letter to Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Co.

Albright, Samuel R. Berger, who was Clinton's national security adviser, and former counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke have taken particular exception to a sequence in which American military officers in Afghanistan appear to allow bin Laden to escape after the mission to capture him fails to get a go-ahead from Clinton officials in Washington. In a statement, Clarke said such an event never occurred and called the series "deeply flawed."

Critics maintain that the miniseries essentially lets the Bush administration off the hook in the fruitless hunt for bin Laden. They have also questioned ABC's decision to assign the production to an avowed conservative, Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote and directed The Day Reagan Was Shot, a 2001 TV drama.

Commentators on the right, including talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, have hailed Nowrasteh's 9/11 miniseries as a truthful depiction of the Clinton administration's efforts - or lack of them - in fighting terrorism.

For its part, the ABC network limited itself yesterday to a statement reminding viewers that The Path to 9/11 is not a documentary.

"It is a dramatization, drawn from a variety of sources including the 9/11 Commission Report, other published materials, and personal interviews," the statement said. "As such, for dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, and time compression."

Although hundreds of copies of the docu-drama were sent out to reviewers in recent weeks, "no one has seen the final version of the film, because the editing process is not yet complete," the ABC statement said, leaving open the possibility that some of the contested scenes could be altered before airtime.

The controversy has raised the issue of whether television audiences - in a politically charged election season and at the time of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks - are likely to be swayed by a film about historical events that appears to take liberties with facts.

"Many of the things in the miniseries will be news to people, as when they present Clinton as being asleep at the switch," said Richard Lachmann, a sociology professor at the State University of New York, Albany, who draws on research and trends to explain popular culture.

"Most Americans haven't paid a lot of attention to the 9/11 commission, so they really don't know what Clinton did or didn't do about al-Qaida, and they don't really know what Bush did after 9/11. To say that Bush has been effective would be too much even for fiction."

Many viewers, Lachmann said, "have a pretty fuzzy idea" about whether so-called re-enactments are faithful to the truth. "They know these people are actors, and they know it's not a news show," he said, "but they seem to believe that these things are based on fact."

S. Elizabeth Bird, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa and the author of The Audience in Everyday Life: Living in a Media World (Routledge, 2003), said she conducted research several years ago into how people perceived televised re-enactments of events. The results, she said, showed that young people tended to view such dramatizations as more real than did adults.

Bird said she was approached by a young man, 20 or 21, who said he had "really learned the truth" about John F. Kennedy's assassination after watching Oliver Stone's JFK, a film that many critics viewed as a fantastical conspiracy theory behind the killing.

"For people who already believe one way or the other that they know the truth, this docu-drama is not going to change them," Bird said, referring to the 9/11 miniseries. "If this is presented to them as something that actually happened, in the absence of other information, it's likely to be perceived as more believable. To me, that's the ethical issue here."

Bird said there was no question that The Path to 9/11 will be taken as fact by many people, especially in the context of the anniversary of the attacks.

"It's such a strongly emotional event," she said, "so I doubt if anyone is going to take the position that it's just fiction."

The Democratic National Committee is not taking any chances. In an e-mail to more than 3 million party members, DNC Executive Director Tom McMahon called The Path to 9/11 a "bold-faced lie," and said ABC was using the public airwaves to "sell a slanderous, irresponsible fraud to the American people, and they're shamefully doing it just weeks away from Election Day."

"The Path to 9/11," WMAR-TV (Channel 2), Sunday, 8 p.m.-11 p.m., and Monday, 8 p.m.--10 p.m.

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