The Path to 9/11 Bias
The Media Research Center meekly suggests that an inaccurate ABC miniseries be edited, but it expends much more effort attacking Democrats upset with fictionalized portrayals of the Clinton administration.
By Terry Krepel
ABC's miniseries "The Path to 9/11," scheduled to air on the day before and the day of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, raised a lot of hackles after reports surfaced of inaccuracies in its presentation of events leading up to the attacks.
Not from most conservatives, though -- the inaccuracies in question involved the Clinton administration, which they were more than happy to see derogatorily portrayed. Even though conservatives howled over what they considered to be an unflattering portrayal of Ronald Reagan in a 2003 CBS miniseries -- the protests forced CBS to pull the movie from the schedule; it later aired on the Showtime movie channel -- they praised "The Path to 9/11" and bashed Democrats for daring to criticize its inaccuracies.
A leader in doing this was the Media Research Center. A Sept. 6 NewsBusters post by Noel Sheppard was all about attacking the critics, dismissing them as "Michael Moore devotees." First, Sheppard quoted Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, "the outspoken proprietor of Daily Kos," calling the series a "piece of fiction." Sheppard retorted: "That's some truly objective review-work there, isn’t it? Wouldn’t every movie and television critic have an easy job if all he or she had to do was reference the opinions of others rather than actually see the film or program in question? Imagine the time you'd save!" Sheppard did not note that non-conservatives, and even people depicted in the show, couldn't get preview copies of it so they can judge for themselves.
Sheppard also accused Moulitsas of committing a "cardinal sin of journalism," forgetting the fact that Moulitsas has never proclaimed himself to be a journalist -- or even objective, for that matter. Sheppard then committed his own "cardinal sins of journalism" by forwarding false claims and faulty arguments.
Sheppard stated that "Kos then listed reasons why the miniseries was presenting falsehoods. Nowhere did Markos inform the reader that this analysis was apparently made by former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke." Yet, rather than refuting Clarke's specific criticisms (or even bothering to detail what they were), Sheppard assailed Clarke's credibility, repeating one critic (Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, who Sheppard insisted was "no friend of the Bush administration!") calling him "a risk-averse poseur."
Sheppard also assailed a claim by Judd Legum of the blog Think Progress that a scene in the miniseries depicting Osama bin Laden as being cornered and the Clinton administration refusing to give final approval to capture him "never happened" and was "completely made up" by screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh. Sheppard then created a straw man, quoting the 9/11 Commission report to falsely assert that Legum was instead denying that there was no plan to capture bin Laden: "Does it sound like Nowrasteh 'completely made up' this plan?"
Additionally, Sheppard tried to rewrite history by falsely stating the circumstances surrounding the Sandy Berger case, claiming that Berger "was so intent on covering up the missteps of the Clinton administration that he actually stole documents from the National Archive just prior to testifying before the Commission." In fact, as ConWebWatch has pointed out, Berger took no original documents.
The next day, though, Sheppard tried to walk back some of those claims. After hearing from Scheuer, Sheppard seemed to concede that the scene depicting the CIA and Northern Alliance purportedly have Osama bin Laden surrounded only to have the operation called off by the Clinton White House is not as accurate as he previously suggested.
Then, after channeling Scheuer for some more Richard Clarke-bashing, Sheppard tried to change the subject, admitting that, despite excoriating Moulitsas for criticizing something he hadn't seen, Sheppard himself was defending something he himself hadn't seen, then declaring that nobody should make such judgments:
Finally, on a personal note, it appears necessary to clear up some misunderstandings about the focus I have given to this issue the past couple of days. The truth is that I have not yet seen “The Path to 9/11,” and, frankly, have no opinion on it. How can one have an opinion on something one hasn’t seen?
Did Sheppard similarly sign off in 2003 on the Reagan miniseries as "just a made-for-television docudrama ... nothing more, nothing less"? He doesn't say. Sheppard, however, made no attempt to correct his other inaccurate claims, such as falsely stating the circumstances surrounding the Sandy Berger case or his straw-man claim about Think Progress' post on the miniseries.
Sheppard tried to change the subject again in an Sept. 7 post, claiming that despite what he claimed were "no less than 59 factual errors" in Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Moore was not compelled by a political party to re-edit it." Sheppard also fails to note that ABC parent Disney, whose Miramax subsidiary produced "Fahrenheit 9/11," refused to distribute it, forcing Miramax to find another distributor. That's arguably a form of censorship, though it did ultimately receive wide distribution. And discredited Clinton-hater David Bossie -- producer of one of three films made by conservatives to rebut "Fahrenheit," the existence of which Sheppard also forgot to mention -- did attempt to censor the movie, filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to halt advertising for it as a purported violation of federal election laws.
Sheppard kept the deception up, downplaying the Republican ties of those who have praised the miniseries. In a Sept. 10 NewsBusters post praising 9/11 Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean and commission member John Lehman for speaking in favor of airing "The Path to 9/11," Sheppard included a long quote from Lehman identifying himself as "a Republican having lived with the hostility of Hollywood through the last 30 years" (which Sheppard called "brilliantly offered"), but he failed to note Kean's Republican affiliation.
Why does this matter? Because the MRC has been quick to highlight the Democratic links of other 9/11 Commission members who have spoken out on the film. A Sept. 6 NewsBusters post by Clay Waters, for instance, described commission member Richard Ben-Veniste as "a hard-core Democratic and Clinton partisan."
The MRC's double standards on "The Path to 9/11" come from the top. In an Oct. 23, 2003, column, MRC president Brent Bozell had this to say regarding the CBS movie on Ronald Reagan:
Hollywood should never call its historical fiction "meticulously researched." Rather, they should be forced to carry a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen saying "We made some of this stuff up."
By contrast, Bozell was much more sanguine about "fictional 'history' movies" when Democrats are the victims of the falsehoods, showing little concern over "dishonesty" or "propaganda." From Bozell's Sept. 6 column:
Serious scholars of current events, not to mention some of those named in the film, may take issue with parts of this presentation. The movie is based on the report of the 9/11 Commission, which itself is not infallible in its conclusions on what went wrong and what needs to fixed. Moreover, up front the moviemakers note it has composite characters and manipulates the time of events for a better movie experience. As a "docudrama" it has taken certain poetic license with history.
When Reagan was the target, Bozell insisted Hollywood was making stuff up and adding to the historical record. When Democrats were being defamed, Hollywood was merely taking "poetic license with history" in Bozell's eyes.
On the other hand, Bozell made tentative steps toward acknowledging that the Democrats have a point. On the Sept. 6 edition of MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," he said that ABC should "edit" or "correct" scenes "that do not have any bearing on reality."
The MRC, however, was not terribly eager to promote this statement -- no press release trumpeting this declaration was issued, for instance -- and it was certainly not a MRC dictate that its spokesmen repeat it. For instance, MRC director of media analysis Tim Graham, in a Sept. 8 appearance on Fox News' "Your World with Neil Cavuto," stuck to bashing Democrats, saying that "the Clinton administration are bunch of babies that can't handle criticism" and that they are engaging in "hyperbolic screaming" that the movie's producers are "delusional or psychotic." (He offered no evidence to support that claim.) Graham further issued a partisan attack against Clinton: "Bill Clinton is here to say these ridiculous things about 'Don't put any lies in it.' What does he know about lying and truth?" When Cavuto pointed out that the 9/11 Commission "does not purport to show to show the things and the statements in this documentary," Graham notes that "If you're Madeleine Albright or if you're Condoleezza Rice, you're not going to like the way you're portrayed in this movie" but didn't explicitly demand edits for accuracy.
In fact, MRC employees repeated Bozell's statement only to defend themselves against being accused of a double standard compared to its behavior toward the Reagan miniseries. In a Sept. 8 NewsBusters post by MRC vice president for research and publications (and Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow) Brent Baker -- in which he suggested that a ConWebBlog post pointing out Bozell's double standard on editing (largely repeated above) was the inspiration for MSNBC's Keith Olbermann naming Bozell that day's "Worst Person in the World" -- cited the statement to defend Bozell:
Olbermann ignored how saying the movie takes “poetic license” is criticism and how on Wednesday's Scarborough Country, Bozell asserted: "I think that if you have a scene or two scenes or three scenes, important scenes, that do not have any bearing on reality and you can edit them, I think they should edit them.”
But Baker himself is also guilty of a double standard. In a Dec. 1, 2003, MRC CyberAlert review of "The Reagans" (which he called "every bit as awful as conservatives feared with a belittling portrayal of Ronald Reagan"), Baker called it "condescending" for the head of Showtime Networks for noting that the movie was "criticized by those who have yet to see it." Yet neither he nor anyone else at the MRC have similarly called ABC "condescending" for claiming that it was "premature and irresponsible" to criticize "The Path to 9/11" before airing (despite the network previously asserting the show was "locked and ready to air"). Baker then ridicules the Showtime guy for saying "Nearly all of the historical facts in the movie can be substantiated and have been carefully researched" -- but "nearly all," as in "about 98 percent," is the same factual standard he and Bozell have embraced as acceptable on "The Path to 9/11."
The MRC wasn't the only ConWeb component to defend "The Path to 9/11." A Sept. 5 NewsMax column by James Hirsen puts forth a flawed defense of the miniseries, claiming that it is "thoroughly sourced and exposes information that former members of the Clinton administration had previously tried to suppress." Hirsen does not address the claims that scenes in the miniseries are factually inaccurate. Like Sheppard, Hirsen treated the fictional bin-Laden-surrounded scene as fact, adding, "The administration's refusal to authorize bin Laden's capture was apparently for political reasons," and ignoring that even 9/11 Commission co-chairman Kean, who served as a "senior consultant" for the miniseries, called the scene mere speculation and not fact.
Hirsen also stated:
Clinton colleagues Richard Ben-Veniste and John Podesta reportedly expressed their extreme displeasure about the way the docudrama portrays the Clinton administration. Their frustration likely stems from the extensive efforts that were taken to keep the information from being made public.
Hirsen offered no specific evidence to back up his claim that Ben-Veniste and Podesta -- or anyone else -- tried to "suppress" information from becoming public.
Hirsen repeated another dubious claim -- one of NewsMax's favorite Clinton-bashing cudgels that it trots out when it feels the need, and it feels that need yet again in a Sept. 10 article -- that President Clinton said in a 2002 speech that in 1996, Sudan offered up Osama bin Laden to the United States for extradition but the Clinton administration turned the offer down. While Hirsen stated that "in true Clintonesque fashion, he unabashedly asserted that his admission was 'not accurate,' " he failed to note that the 9-11 Commission found "no reliable evidence to support" the claim.
Meanwhile, at WorldNetDaily, a Sept. 8 article by Art Moore used Robert "Buzz" Patterson -- who wrote a Clinton-bashing tome that he said Cyrus Nowrasteh used as a source for his "Path to 9/11"screenplay -- to vouch for the veracity of "The Path to 9/11." Moore misleadingly calls Patterson a "military aide to President Clinton." That book, "Dereliction of Duty," was published in 2003 by right-wing publishing house Regnery; amid tabloid-esque Clinton-bashing claims such as allegedly cheating at golf and groping a female enlisted soldier on the galley of Air Force One, Patterson alleged that the Clinton administration essentially did nothing to react to 1996 intelligence document describing a al-Qaeda plan to crash jets into U.S. targets, called "Operation Bojinka."
Moore failed to note Patterson's copious conservative bona fides -- in addition to proclaiming himself to be "The Conservative Military Voice in American Politics," Patterson is vice president and chief operating officer for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and he hosts a talk show on the conservative Internet radio website Rightalk. He distorted John Kerry's record during the 2004 presidential campaign, and has a history of making false claims about Clinton. His soon-to-be-released book (by Random House's conservative Crown Forum imprint) is called "War Crimes: The Left's Campaign to Destroy Our Military and Lose the War on Terror." This makes him a decidedly less than objective source to comment about the miniseries, let alone serve as a font of reliable information for its screenwriter.
For the ConWeb, it's clear that the truth can be ignored if fiction does a better job of beating up on Clinton.