The controversy over ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” movie missed an important point: the Democrats went over the line in threatening to revoke ABC’s broadcast license unless changes were made to benefit former President Clinton and officials of his Administration. By taking this approach, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and his cohorts were acting like would-be censors.
In a letter to Robert Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the parent of ABC, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Senator Charles Schumer, and Senator Byron Dorgan demanded changes in the film, saying, “The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principle [sic] obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest. Nowhere is this public interest obligation more apparent than in the duty of broadcasters to serve the civic needs of a democracy by promoting an open and accurate discussion of political ideas and events.”
The message was unmistakable: change the film to please us or face legal and congressional consequences. And changes were made. But where were the cries from the media about Senator Reid & Company violating the First Amendment?
Regarding the movie itself, it purported to take the report of the 9/11 commission and turn it into a “docudrama,” which is an oxymoron. It aired on the night before and the night of the 9/11 attacks, making the subject matter extremely controversial and timely.
The Clinton camp had a legitimate gripe, in not wanting to be portrayed falsely. But bickering over specific scenes in the movie is less important than noting the fact that the Clinton and his officials passed on numerous opportunities to kill or capture Bin Laden. AIM has pointed out that according to the London Sunday Times, and other sources, Clinton said that the “biggest mistake” of his presidency was turning down Sudan’s offer to extradite bin Laden to the U.S.
Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson, who had been a military aide to then-president Clinton from 1996 to 1998 and later became a major critic, gave his account of the film to WorldNetDaily. Patterson, who had been consulted by the producers of the film, said that “I was there with Clinton and (National Security Adviser Sandy) Berger and watched the missed opportunities occur.” He described an incident in which Berger placed an urgent call to Clinton, who was watching a golf tournament. Finally, on the third time that Patterson approached Clinton about the matter, he was told that he would call Berger shortly, but by then, according to Patterson, the window of opportunity had closed.
Conservatives were divided over the film. John Podhoretz wrote a column for the New York Post pointing out why these docudramas are so problematic. He argued that it did a great disservice to then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but not to President Clinton, whose record spoke for itself. On the other hand, Victor Davis Hanson pointed out that the movie was generally accurate and well done. Hanson argued the tendency to exaggerate or distort real-life events occurs not only in docudramas but in the news itself. Two good examples are so-called historical books such as those by Bob Woodward, and Dan Rather’s Memogate story.
“And what are we to think of Bill Clinton lamenting the movie’s supposed deviation from the ‘truth,'” wrote Hanson, “or Sandy Berger’s concern about protocols, or Madeline Albright’s apparent charge of partisanship, this from a former Secretary of State who has traveled the globe plugging her book by faulting her successors to foreign media in a time of war. Although I’m not a fan of docudramas, I found The Path to 9/11, with its disclaimers, far closer to the ‘truth’ about the saga of bin Laden than what turned up in Bill Clinton’s ‘factual’ autobiography.”
A few months after 9/11, Byron York of National Review wrote a detailed account of the Clinton administration’s record on dealing with the terrorist acts that took place during his two terms in office. The publication re-ran the article days before the ABC movie was shown, with this editor’s note: “When it comes to Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism, there’s no need to invent fictional scenarios to show how ineffective he was; the truth is bad enough.”
President Bush’s request for airtime the night of 9/11 to talk about the war on Islamic radicalism had the effect of making the docudrama even more controversial. Peter Rollins, the editor of Film and History, said that Bush made the film work for his ends, “providing the upbeat solution which the film left out.” Otherwise, said Rollins, the film “left us in ruins rather than showing the dramatic victory in Afghanistan and then the assault on Iraq.”
Wearing his film critic’s hat, Rollins pointed out that while “The Path to 9/11” was not a documentary, it used documentary techniques, such as the hand-held camera, and “slash” shots of parts of faces for dramatic effect, a technique created by CBS’s 60 Minutes.
We are not entirely comfortable with such a technique. But tackling history through a docudrama at least represented an attempt to deal with something that actually happened.
In the end, the fact remains: Clinton was in power for 8 years before 9/11. Bush was in power for only 8 months. That helps explain why the Clinton Administration came in for so much scrutiny.