The forthcoming ABC documentary on 9/11 represents a turning point in American political life and a touchstone which should help resolve some long-standing controversies about media bias. It also challenges working journalists to uncover some new relationships which are reducing the idea of an independent press to a joke. Its impact upon the forthcoming elections will say a great deal about where we are as a nation, but it might also even have some beneficial legal consequences, even if those will take a great deal of time to develop.
What we have learned about the documentary makes clear that ABC has produced a piece of GOP agitprop that takes breathtaking, scandalous liberties with the facts. These extend even to the staging of incidents that never occurred, most notably, a supposed teleconference between a heroic CIA agent in
Now the first, obvious point emerging from all this is the much-noted comparison to the 2003 CBS miniseries, The Reagans. That series drew upon a mixture of known facts (Nancy Reagan’s reliance on astrology, for instance) and Kitty Kelley-type gossip to paint a very unflattering picture of a Republican icon. In response to massive pressure, CBS did not edit the miniseries, it dropped it, showing it on its Showtime cable outlet. If ABC goes ahead and runs this one—and there is nothing to indicate that they will not—it should prove that right-wing pressure on the media is far, far more influential than left-wing pressure, and that the mainstream media, if it ever had a genuine liberal bias, no longer has any at all.
But the second issue is, how did this happen? While I would hope that my readers would know by now that I do not instinctively grasp at conspiracy theories, I do not believe that it could have been chance, absence of mind on the part of the producers, or just good Republican luck that led to the docudrama turning out this way. Disney/ABC are doing an extraordinarily valuable favor the Bush Administration and some mixture of carrots and sticks, in my opinion, must have been deployed to secure this result. Some major newspaper should create a task force of political, entertainment and business reporters to try to find out how all this came about. (P.S.--Blogger Max Blumenthal has done this, impressively. David Horowitz, it seems, is the man behind the project. See http://maxblumenthal.blogspot.com/2006/09/discover-secret-right-wing-network.html .) It is a key step in the Bush Administration’s project: to prove that a corporate media can be as effectively manipulated as an actually controlled one—more so, in fact, since an explicitly state-controlled media inevitably loses more of its credibility than a free one. Unlike major newspapers, none of which is published in a state which Republicans have any chance of carrying anyway, a tv network has a national audience, and thus becomes a key target. In the run-up to the Iraqi war the Administration succeeded in getting even the
The docudrama obviously plays right into the White House’s election strategy: to argue once again that despite the failure to catch Osama Bin Laden, the catastrophe in Iraq, the manipulation of intelligence (confirmed by a new Senate Committee report, whose sections on the nefarious influence of the Iraqi National Congress were released thanks to two courageous Republican Senators), and the collapse of our moral position in the world, the President deserves support, essentially, because he recognizes that the Muslim world is full of bad guys and needs every tool he can get to fight them. The Administration is firing with all its guns, implying, for instance, in presidential statements last week that we have closed down secret prisons and will no longer use abusive interrogation techniques, only to have newspapers reveal (to those few who read them) that the actual announcements and legislation submitted do no such thing, but rather confer immunity on CIA officers who use waterboarding and other such techniques, and call for trials in which the accused will never see the evidence against him. Once again I note that this is too much even for some Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said, “It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them “ ‘Trust us, you’re guilty, we’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why’? That’s not going to pass muster; that’s not necessary.” Saying one thing while doing another has become second nature. I am very concerned that these tactics, combined with some strategic terror alerts or arrest (and, every likely, a new Osama Bin Laden video, since Bin Laden knows how much good George W. Bush has done his cause), combined with the gerrymandering of the House of Representatives about which I have written before, may actually keep the Republicans in control of the Congress. (Actually, unlike most Democrats, I am more hopeful about regaining control of the Senate than the House.) As I showed a few weeks ago, historically an unpopular Administration in its sixth term would normally lose 40-50 House seats, but there simply are not 40 or 50 seats which the Democrats could possibly win given the gerrymandering that has taken place.
Lastly, however, it seems possible to me that legal action by various Clinton-era officials—which I certainly hope they are threatening and seriously preparing—could actually make the media more accountable once again. Under New York Times vs. Sullivan, law for more than 40 years, only a demonstration of actual malice, not simple falsehood, allows for a finding of libel against a public official. One certainly could argue that to present a highly critical portrayal of officials by staging a meeting that never took place is prima facie evidence of actual malice, but the courts could also go further and make the knowing publication of falsehood sufficient grounds for damages in and of itself. Someone has to do something to restore some respect for truth in our public life. We will need it to cope with real problems down the road.Postscript: According to news accounts this morning, ABC cut most of the most offensive material, although not all. As usual, financial fears at the top of the network trumped any strong political impulses--and this time, that was a good thing. And even Tom Kean, the former co-chair of the commission who had been a paid consultant on the program, announced that blaming Bill Clinton for 9/11 would be wrong. I can't find any figures as yet on how many people actually watched.