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The Clinton Censors

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Howard Kurtz has the latest on the attempt by Clinton-era policy makers to kill ABC’s “The Path to 9/11.”  ABC execs are under enormous pressure to bow to the airbrushers of history, but to do so will damage their brand for a decade.  “The Path to 9/11” is a superb condensing of the American non-response to terrorism’s growing threat beginning with the bungled surveillance of the first World Trade Center bombers right through the devastating attacks of 9/11.  I spent most of yesterday’s three hour program with the program’s writer/producer Cyrus Nowrasteh, and no serious observer could listen to this interview and conclude that the movie is other than a deeply serious attempt to recount the events leading to the massacre of five years ago, primarily through the eyes of John O’Neill, the FBI agent who had taken over security at the World Trade Center just weeks prior to the attack and whose actions that day are believed to have saved thousans of lives.  For the Clinton team to demand cancelation or edits of the movie is to once again see them elevate their own pesonal vanity above every other interest, especially over the interests of John O’Neill and th emany other public servants who saw the threat clearly and did their best to stop it.  The objections of various Clinton-era figures –Berger rightly argues he didn’t hang up a phone in one scene, for example– are absurd complaints about the tiny details used to compress eight years and eight months into five hours of drama.  From these complaints they have built a tissue-thin demand for an Orwellian memory-hole moment.

My column today, “Why Does The Left Hate “The Path to 9/11,” expands on the controversy.

One false analogy is gaining currency among the airbrush brigade:  CBS pulled a Ronald Reagan docudrama in November 2003 after conservative complaints about its accuracy.  From the CNN story of the time:

While CBS said it was not bowing to political pressure, critics said that was exactly the case, and worried about the effects of such pre-emptive strikes on future work.

CBS believed it had ordered a love story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan with politics as a backdrop, but instead got a film that crossed the line into advocacy, said a network executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The film had been scheduled to air November 16 and 18, in the heart of the November ratings sweeps. CBS attempted to edit the film to remove offending passages, but gave up.

“We believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience,” the network said in a statement Tuesday.

Neal Gabler, author of “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,” said CBS’ decision was unhealthy for democracy.

“CBS, in pulling this film, did incredible harm, much more harm than they could ever have done in making the film,” Gabler said. “What they’ve told us now is that a very small group of people have censorship power over the broadcast networks.”

I am looking forward to Gabler’s defense of the ABC film, but also to the reasoned differentiation between CBS’s explanation and any explanation that ABC can or would ever be able to offer about changes to or cancelation of “The Path to 9/11.”

First, hundreds of people have screened :The Path to 9/11,” including me and many other critics and/or hosts of large audience shows. (Complaints from tiny lefty bloggers that I received a screener and other s didn’t ignore the fact that I requested it weeks ago and that I have an audience in the millions, not the tens.)  To my knowledge not one professional critic has yet suggested the film is other than a powerful narrative of the era, especially chilling in its portrait of the enemy, or particularly damning of the Clinton-era fecklessness regading terror.  It isn’t like we don’t know that Monica was a distraction and Madeleine Albright a less-than-brilliant Secretary of State (how about that late lurch towards North Korea?)  John O’Neill was in fact fired; there were warnings that were ignored about the African embassy bombings, and no response followed the Cole attack and the American ambassador to Yemen was an obstruction to that investigation, Massoud was assasinated by al Qaeda.  These are not debatable subjects.  They are facts.

Second, the Reagan biopic served no purpose and memorialized no important event in American history.  “The Path to 9/11” does both.  The attempt to bury the latter is the attempt to erect an official history on one of the most devastating days in our nation’s history.  Those demanding its ruin are demanding censorship of the very worst sort.

Finally and most importantly, just because people complain that a film is inaccurate doesn’t make it so.  The Reagan pic was by CBS’s own account a deeply flawed bit of anti-Reagan advocacy.

This is not the case about “The Path to 9/11,” which is a powerful and hugely researched project, though it is not a documentary and does not claim to be.  There is no reasonable case to be made that the film distorts history or slanders public figures in any significant way.

(“The Path to 9/11” doesn’t even raise the most damning charge made against Clinton –that he fumbled an Osama hand-0ff from Sudan.)

If ABC caves to the vanity of Bill Clinton and his band of defenders, the network can give up any claim to being other than an extension of the DNC.  That it would consider doing so over such a powerful film on so important a subject  on such a meaningful pair of days is hard to imagine.  Those who are urging the network to do so are disgracing themselves, not the picture or its makers.


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