ABC-TV's miniseries "Path to 9/11" has ignited a new national dialogue on an old subject – the cinematic dramatization of real life.
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.
The network also added a strong disclaimer that it aired at the beginning, middle, and end of each episode, which read, in part: "The movie is not a documentary.... For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes."
The disclaimer strengthens ABC's position in fighting off possible legal challenges.
"There is not a legal question here," says Michael Asimow, a law professor at the UCLA School of Law. The burden of proof includes showing conclusively that writers and producers knew they were lying, he says – an almost impossibly high standard. "It's extremely unlikely that, as public figures, Berger and Albright could successfully sue for defamation because everyone knows that docudramas cannot insist on complete accuracy," he says.
But the more important questions are ethical, he adds. Is it OK for historical dramas to bend the truth? Does it matter how far it is bent? Even when the facts are correct, what about subtle issues of nuance, inflection, and emphasis?
"People should realize that documentarians all have their point of view and are almost never true to fact," says Mr. Asimow. "If they are using the occasion to score points by misrepresenting the facts, that is something for critics and viewers to decide. [Viewers and critics] have to be very careful."
After the broadcast, Clinton officials reportedly said the changes didn't go far enough, while some viewers criticized them for interfering. Others were concerned about the series's timing.
"Somehow the wounds seem still too fresh to take such horrific events to a fictional level," writes Yvonne Berkovich, in an e-mail to the editor of this newspaper. "Let's hope ... viewers recognize the partial truth they are fed."
But other viewers weren't bothered by the dramatization.
"So many of the facts are incorrect, so what. So story lines have changed, big deal. Listen up, America, it's a movie," countered Nicholas Treff in another e-mail to this paper.
The miniseries's first half, which aired Sunday, reportedly attracted 13 million viewers – far short of the 20.7 million that watched NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
From the outset, producers maintained their objective has been to bring the 9/11 Commission Report to life. "Our ambitions and our goals and our standards were all about accuracy," says executive producer Marc Platt. The choice to dramatize the material was for maximum impact, he adds.
More people will watch the TV show than will ever read the report, agrees Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor who was on the team of five Democrats and five Republicans who assembled the 9/11 Commission Report. He consulted on the series and says his goal was to encourage Americans to understand and push Congress to implement the report's recommendations.
"Nobody has said the recommendations weren't the right thing to do," says Mr. Kean. "They're just not doing them."
However, many who heard about the controversy before the film aired have expressed concern that the filmmakers have miscalculated in dealing with such recent history through fiction. Completely aside from the political ramifications, dramatization strives "to give you a you-are-there feeling," says Catherine Opper, a former high school English teacher in Dubuque, Iowa, who watched the mini-series. The problem is that we were there, she adds. "Perhaps we do not need so much the drama of tragedy as we need better understanding of the forces that drive such events."
• AP material was used in this report.