ABC's 9-11 miniseries under intense fire from journalists, conservatives

As more and more misinformation is discovered in ABC's planned miniseries The Path to 9/11, the network has come under criticism and pressure from journalists, conservative pundits, and the film's star, actor Harvey Keitel, to correct the film's inaccuracies and to set the record straight regarding the Clinton administration's counterterrorism efforts.

On the September 8 edition of CNN's American Morning, conservative radio host and former Reagan administration official Bill Bennett acknowledged that “the Clintons had a point” in pressuring ABC to correct the film and admonished ABC for “falsify[ing] the record,” adding, “I think they should correct those inaccuracies.” Bennett also said that conservatives who have embraced the film “now have to be consistent,” noting: “When The Reagans, that show about the Reagans, CBS show, came out, it had all sorts of distortions and misstatements. Conservatives went crazy and had it relegated somewhere -- I don't know. It never appeared on CBS.” As Media Matters for America has noted, The Reagans was originally slated to appear on CBS in November 2003 but aired instead on Showtime, a premium cable channel owned by CBS' parent, Viacom, after pressure from conservatives over its alleged inaccuracies. On September 7, in the late afternoon, Variety reported: “Sources close to the [Path to 9/11] project say the network, which has been in a media maelstrom over the pic, is mulling the idea of yanking the mini altogether.”

From the September 8 edition of American Morning:

BENNETT: But the phones got flooded because I said I thought the Clintons had a point about this ABC miniseries. And my audience pretty dramatically --

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (co-host): Oh, The Path to 9/11.

BENNETT: Right. They pretty dramatically disagreed with me, yes.

O'BRIEN: Really? Well, tell me both sides. First, what's your side on that?

BENNETT: Well, maybe, having been a cabinet member, you know, you have some heightened concern about being quoted accurately and correctly. Look, this -- The Path to 9/11 is strewn with a lot of problems, and I think there were problems in the Clinton administration. But that's no reason to falsify the record, falsify conversations by either the president or his leading people. And, you know, it just shouldn't happen.

Conservatives now have to be consistent, Soledad. When The Reagans, that show about the Reagans, CBS show, came out, it had all sorts of distortions and misstatements. Conservatives went crazy and had it relegated somewhere -- I don't know. It never appeared on CBS. And so I think they should be consistent. And when ABC comes out and has conversations taking place among cabinet members on recent history, on matters that are still before us, I think they should correct those inaccuracies.

On the September 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, conservative author and journalist Richard Miniter criticized parts of the film as “based on an Internet myth” and having “no factual basis”:

WOLF BLITZER (host): But Let me ask you about Sandy Berger specifically: Was he defamed by this scene as depicted -- as we've -- none of us, at least I haven't seen it, you haven't seen it.

MINITER: Well, I've seen this scene and you've seen this scene too. This scene is based on an Internet myth. I did extensive reporting into the Clinton years, and as you say, I'm not afraid to take a few shots.

BLITZER: Hold on one second. I -- we're not hearing you. So talk -- start again. Was Sandy Berger defamed in this scene?

MINITER: Well, that's a legal question. But certainly if I was the producer, I wouldn't have gone with this scene, because there's no factual basis for it. It seems to be drawn from an Internet myth, from a profound misunderstanding of what actually happened.

If people wanted to be critical of the Clinton years, there's things they could have said, but the idea that someone had [Osama] bin Laden in his sights in 1998 or any other time and the -- Sandy Berger refused to pull the trigger, there's zero factual basis for that.

BLITZER: Because -- you've heard other 9-11 Commission members saying it wasn't Sandy Berger who pulled the trigger, it was George Tenet, the CIA director. Based on what you know, is that accurate?

MINITER: Even that's not accurate. We just never had eyes on bin Laden at the -- in the pre-9-11 situation. The 9-11 Commission investigated this. The House and Senate Joint Committee investigated this and published a 1,000-page report. I looked into it extensively. Most of the sources for my book, Losing bin Laden [Regnery, 2003], are Clinton administration officials. There's just no basis for this at all, none.

On the September 7 edition of CNN Headline News' Showbiz Tonight, Keitel noted that "[i]t turned out not all the facts were correct" and claimed: “Where we have distorted something, we have made a mistake, and that should be corrected. It can be corrected”:

KEITEL: Yeah, I had questions about certain events and material I was given in The Path to 9/11 that I did raise questions about. Yes, I had some conflicts there.

A.J. HAMMER (host): How was that met?

KEITEL: With discussion. With argument. When I received the script, it said “ABC history project.” I took it to be exactly what they presented to me -- history, and that the facts were correct. It turned out not all the facts were correct, and ABC set about trying to heal that problem. In some instances, it was too late because we had begun.

HAMMER: Do you feel that anything should be changed in this film?

KEITEL: Yes, I do. This is a tough issue.


KEITEL: Because we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are also quality issues raised in the film that our citizens should see, should be discussing amongst themselves. If in putting together certain facts, an untruth evolves from that, then that's wrong. You can compile certain things as long as the truth remains the truth. You can't put things together, compress them, and then distort the reality.

HAMMER: The director has said -- and this is a quote from the director -- that “this is an objective telling of the events of 9-11, not a documentary.” Of course, we have seen history dramatized all the time. And there are certain areas where creative license is taken in doing that.

KEITEL: That's right.

HAMMER: In the case of September 11th, though, do you feel that it is an absolute responsibility that it be factually accurate, even if it is a dramatization?

KEITEL: Absolutely, you cannot cross the line from a conflation of events to a distortion of the event. No. Where we have distorted something, we have made a mistake, and that should be corrected. It can be corrected. It can be corrected by the people getting involved in the story that they're going to see.

On the September 7 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz criticized ABC for “putting a movie on a serious, sensitive topic on the fifth-year anniversary of 9-11 that contains fiction”:

BROOKE ANDERSON (CNN culture and entertainment correspondent): ABC's new miniseries, The Path to 9/11, is raising the ire of former President Bill Clinton and some of his cabinet officials. ABC says the miniseries is not a documentary, but a dramatization based on the 9-11 Commission report, interviews, and other published materials. It depicts events leading up to the September 11th attacks.

KURTZ: ABC doesn't seem very embarrassed about the fact that it is putting a movie on a serious, sensitive topic on the fifth-year anniversary of 9-11 that contains fiction.

On the September 7 edition of MSNBC's The Most, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, criticized the film for treating facts “cavalierly,” as well as ABC's response to critiques of the film, noting: "[T]hey [ABC] said that complaints about the film are irresponsible because they are still editing the film, yet they were very happy to send out review copies."

From the September 8 edition of MSNBC's The Most:

ALISON STEWART (anchor): However, the folks at the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher have seen it. They received an advance copy of the film and have posted their own review on the site. Greg Mitchell is the editor of that trade journal, and Greg, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called the TV film defamatory toward the Clinton administration. You've seen the film, is it?

MITCHELL: Well, I think that's a matter of opinion, of course, but -- and there's no question that the film spreads some blame around. But there's also no question that it's heavily weighted against the Clinton administration. And I think one of the biggest problems is that the -- there are, as they say, composite scenes, but there are really no composite characters. So you have Madeleine Albright, you have Sandy Berger, the Clinton adviser, who are there under their own names, clearly identified, and they're clearly the ones in the film who allegedly let Osama go. So you have a real problem when you have actual, real people who are getting the finger pointed at them in what everyone would agree is the crime of the century.

STEWART: Let's do a little bit of truth-squadding if we can, since you've seen the movie. A few of the scenes -- one has, as you mentioned, former national security adviser Sandy Berger refusing to give the CIA the go-ahead to take out Osama bin Laden. From your understanding, is this entirely accurate?

MITCHELL: No, actually, it's entirely made up, which is one of the problems. The other thing, which actually just came out today, was that the screenwriter admitted on talk radio on the West Coast that this scene, while it was in the script, was partly improvised in the making of the movie. It ends quite dramatically with Sandy Berger slamming down the phone and cutting off all communication on making this decision to go after Osama. And it's great cinema, but not only did it not happen, the screenwriter says it wasn't even in the script, and it was improvised on the spot. He sort of liked the way it looked, and it was, you know -- went over well in the -- when it was being filmed, so they left it in. And it seems like an appalling thing to admit for a film on such a serious subject -- really on the most serious, most sensitive subject, and mass murder. And to treat the facts that cavalierly seems to me is the reason that ABC is under such pressure now to do a heavy editing job on the film.

STEWART: Now, ABC has said in a statement that it is as such for dramatic and narrative purposes. The movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters, as you mentioned, and dialogue and time compression. Is there a place for this kind of genre? Or is it just too controversial when, as you said, you're talking about real people with fictionalized dialogue and, perhaps, fictionalized events?

MITCHELL: Right. Well again, you have to look at the event it's portraying. I mean, you know, I go back a long ways, and I know docudramas have been on television for more than three decades. There are often controversies or disputes about straying from the facts. This is nothing new. But this is a subject that, again, is arguably the most important story that has hit America in all that time, and it would seem to demand special attention to the facts, to history, and to a total absence of political bias. And I --

STEWART: You bring up a great point. I want to get to political bias. Since you've seen this film, did you sense any political bias in the film?

MITCHELL: Well, again, we are introduced to this film. Review copies were sent to conservative bloggers and conservative media, talk radio people, and so forth. They all praised it to the sky for really hitting the Clinton administration. So it kind of raises eyebrows right there. The same review copies were not sent to liberal bloggers or liberal media critics. So you kind of have your antennae up at that point. But when we reviewed the review copy, again it was clear that it is definitely slanted against the Clinton administration and does not hit the Bush administration much at all. So I understand that they're -- probably are editing it heavily now.

It's interesting that they now say that - today -- they said that complaints about the film are irresponsible because they are still editing the film, yet they were very happy to send out review copies. Reviews have already started appearing in magazines. Certainly they finished -- they felt it was finished enough at that time to send it to reviewers. But now they're saying it's irresponsible to critique the film when they're still editing. And I'm sure they are editing, since they are under pressure from former president Clinton, other Clinton officials, and [former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism official] Richard Clarke, other people who are -- actually are pictured in the film.

STEWART: And, Greg, quickly before I let you go, because we're running out of time here: Is it a good movie?

MITCHELL: As we said in our story, I think it's very well-shot, I think it's very interestingly done, I think there's some great camera work, I think there's some great editing. It's not a dull, you know, simple, glossy, typical TV movie. It's actually a well-made film. But I also think it's incredibly flawed, and raises real problems about how this subject is being tackled.

STEWART: Greg Mitchell, editor of the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher, thank you so much for sharing your review with us.