Editorial writer for The Leader
Impartial media may have become an oxymoron, but even in this day of jaded and sly journalism ABC’s five-hour documentary, or “docudrama,” “The Path to 9/11” is a monumental embarrassment. More than that, it is an affront to the American people. At least for living Americans, Sept. 11, 2001, remains the most monstrous day in U.S. history, and most people expect a high degree of reverence for the event and the memory of it. It brought the country, even the warring political parties in Washington, together for a remarkable period back there and on Monday, five years and many bruising battles later, all sides in Washington strove for some evenhandedness, some harmony, even if the shallow armistice was only for a single day.
But “The Path to 9/11,” which ran for two nights, was a jarring reminder of how the deep divisions in the country have corrupted nearly every institution. ABC, once the solid bellwether of the electronic media but now the property of the right-wing Walt Disney Co., exploited the nation’s mourning to put across the message that the terrorist attacks and all the sorrows that have followed lay at the feet of former President Bill Clinton. Disney produced the film and used its media property to circulate it.
An election is approaching and the docudrama was supposed to recast people’s reflections on the past five years in a more favorable light to the Bush administration. Blame and the worthiness of the administration’s efforts to punish the enemy and combat terrorism are perfectly good questions for argument, but it is dishonest to deliver one side’s message subliminally in a documentary that purports to be almost truthful. (A disclaimer did acknowledge that some characters were “composites” and that times were “compressed for dramatic purposes,” as if 9/11 itself were not sufficiently dramatic.)
The script was written by a friend of Rush Limbaugh, who, along with a handful of Republicans, was given a chance to review it before the airing. The upshot of the film was that Clinton and his surrogates twice had a chance to kill Osama bin Laden, but they were all too cowardly or dumb to pull the trigger. These stories cropped up in the months after 9/11 — often on Limbaugh’s show — but the 9/11 Commission, headed by a Republican politician, ferreted out the truth of those situations. Although the film purports to be based on the report of the 9/11 Commission whole scenes, narratives and dialogue frequently fly in the face of the report.
Everyone in the Clinton administration, from the president down to the ambassador to Yemen, Barbara K. Bodine, and unnamed bureaucrats are characterized as spineless or ignorant. Some scenes contradict incontrovertible fact. Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorist chief who pressed both administrations to act more forcefully against terrorists and who now is a terrorism consultant to ABC, said the film was fiction.
American Airlines Monday condemned the film because it insinuated that the airline had ignored a warning about Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, when he tried to check in at the Boston airport on 9/11 but waved him onto the plane anyway.
The film insinuated that the airline was negligent and violated federal rules. But every particular about the scene was wrong: the airport, the airline and what happened. The real airline, U.S. Airways, was not negligent either, the 9/11 Commission said.
Asked about the documentary at Little Rock the other day, Clinton said simply: “I think they ought to tell the truth.” It is as simple as that. And the truth was frightening enough.