History by miniseries: Too fast, too loose?
ABC's 'Path to 9/11' ignited a furor over political meddling – and how it will play in an election season.
ABC-TV's miniseries "Path to 9/11" has ignited a new national dialogue on an old subject – the cinematic dramatization of real life.Skip to next paragraph
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But unlike previous fact-vs.-drama arguments over the Vietnam War or episodes in the Nixon or Reagan presidencies, this week's just-ended series has raised the political stakes, say media critics and political pundits.
Because the war on terror remains central in the lives of Americans – and because the November elections may hinge on how people perceive its progress – the drama and its timing have unfurled charges of media bias, as well as concerns that voters might be swayed by a fictionalized and disputed account of events.
"The intensity of the controversy over the portrayals in ['Path'] is already ratcheted up because of the coming election, and when you add the currency of the war on terror, the whole issue becomes a very combustible commodity," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media research organization in Washington. "When you have a piece of historical fiction competing for the historical record that is still forming in people's minds, that is dangerous terrain."
The film's most hotly contested moments dealt with the effectiveness of Clinton administration officials in fighting terrorism. With President Bush's party now heading into fall elections and battling voter concerns that he has fumbled the war on terror, a TV docudrama that points the finger at others for similar mistakes may help to soften criticism of the president, some say.
Mr. Felling goes so far as to suggest this was a deliberate strategy on the part of ABC's team. "It's always troubling when people fudge history," he says. "It's considerably more invidious when they are manufacturing a scapegoat."
That's an extreme view.
Most media experts interviewed were careful not to weigh in on the ultimate veracity of the depictions. Instead, they suggest that the fallout from any misleading portrayals could alter voting patterns in a key election, as well as shape decisions on events that are still unfolding.
"Everyone knows that by defi- nition, docudramas compromise the nature of fact and truth ... that madeup dialogue, composite scenes, compressed timelines are not the best medium to tell history," says Robert Thompson, a media theorist at Syracuse University. "This has become a way more complex problem in 'Path to 9/11' because we are talking about subject matter that is sitting smack in the middle of America's political and civil life. The consequences of what viewers take away from this are higher, and so should their awareness be."
The controversy over "Path" boiled over even before its première Sunday. Several officials in the Clinton administration publicly complained that the dramatization distorted their actions to track down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote ABC saying that one scene depicting her was "false and defamatory." Samuel Berger, President Clinton's former national security adviser, wrote the network about another scene: "The fabrication of this scene cannot be justified."
The issue became such a hot potato that ABC hunkered down over the weekend, rechecking facts and editing important moments. The network shortened a sequence showing CIA operatives ready to attack Mr. bin Laden's headquarters but waiting for Clinton officials to authorize the attack. It also deleted the scene Mr. Berger complained about, in which he was depicted hanging up on then-CIA director George Tenet, who was asking for permission to attack. But ABC left in a scene in which Ms. Albright explained why the administration informed Pakistan in advance about an airstrike, which missed bin Laden by a few hours.