In 2003, the New York Times editorialized against the CBS decision to yank its personal-attack film "The Reagans" and said conservatives "helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders."
But Tuesday's Times carries an editorial that never mentioned a "Soviet-style chill" in the attempts of Clinton and his staffers to kill ABC's "The Path to 9/11." Instead of decrying "fierce" ideological assault on the media, the Times again finds its villains on the right, attacking Rush Limbaugh and moderate Republican Thomas Kean. It makes "One suggestion: when attempting to recreate real events on screen, you do not show real people doing things they never did." (Like Jayson Blair claiming to report for the Times from West Virginia when he was in New York City?)
The editorial's title attempts to dismiss the entire ABC film as a fiction: "The Fictional Path to 9/11." Compare its tone to the 2003 editorial on the Reagan film. Here's the Tuesday editorial, in full:
Perhaps the entertainment industry will come up with a few lasting lessons from the outcry over ABC’s “dramatization” of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. One suggestion: when attempting to recreate real events on screen, you do not show real people doing things they never did.
The film, a fictionalized portrayal of the nation’s failure to head off the attack on the World Trade Center, was shown Sunday and Monday. The second episode was wrapped around a live speech by President Bush, so it was especially unfortunate that the most questionable scenes all seemed to make the Clinton administration look worse, and Mr. Bush look better, than the record indicates.
Some of the most controversial scenes were cut at the last minute. But the first episode, for instance, showed C.I.A. agents and the charismatic leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance perched outside a bin Laden camp, ready to swoop in and capture him if only Washington approved. The authorization is not granted, and the Afghan leader rails, “Are there no men in Washington, or are they all cowards?” Yet neither C.I.A. operatives nor the Northern Alliance leader ever laid eyes on Osama bin Laden, terrorism experts say. The film may be referring to a proposed raid by other Afghan tribesmen that was vetoed by the C.I.A. because it had a low probability of success and was apt to harm civilians.
The “docudrama” format can be useful in allowing viewers to see recent history through the eyes of fictional characters inserted in the action. But it carries the inherent risk that scriptwriters will take the opportunity to improve on history. ABC should certainly have been aware this was a danger with such a politically charged topic. If that thought never occurred to the folks in charge, they might have heard warning bells when Rush Limbaugh went on the air promoting the film and bragging that the writer was a friend of his.
It was especially disturbing that Tom Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, was willing to lend his prestige to this ill-considered project. Mr. Kean served as a senior consultant to the miniseries and has repeatedly defended it in public, even as several Democratic members of the commission criticized its distortions. Mr. Kean has said he will give his payment to charity, but that does not undo the damage done to the aura of bipartisanship that has surrounded the commission’s work. And it has not defused concerns that Mr. Kean did it in part to help his son, who is the Republican candidate for Senate in a close race in New Jersey.
Maybe Mr. Kean wasn’t entirely kidding when he quipped that he had not apologized to President Bill Clinton for any inaccuracies because “he was out campaigning against my son yesterday, so I didn’t reach out to him at all.” Whatever his motives, he has tarnished his carefully nurtured image of a statesman above the political fray.
Now compare that to this Times editorial from November 5, 2003:
It is hard to know what CBS was thinking when it decided to order up a less-than-complimentary mini-series about the Reagans at a time when former President Ronald Reagan is failing and his wife, Nancy, is nursing him. And it should have come as no surprise that conservatives, protective of Mr. Reagan's image at all times, would launch one of the fierce assaults that have become so familiar whenever the right wants to scare the media on an ideological question. But having decided to broadcast the program, CBS was wrong to yield to conservative pressure and yank it.
The biopic, a burgeoning TV format, is a notoriously unreliable storytelling medium. Actors made up to look like famous people spout made-up dialogue that often sounds as if it had been written with the primary purpose of keeping viewers tuned in during the sweeps season. It is not difficult to see why people close to Mr. Reagan would be upset that the script quoted him, for example, on the subject of AIDS sufferers as saying, in an invented quotation, "They that live in sin shall die in sin."
But it is also hard to believe that CBS was unable to edit the series into a form suitable for broadcasting. It would not have had to be favorable to Mr. Reagan, or even rigidly evenhanded, to be worthy of running. The former president is certainly a suitable subject for public debate. His supporters credit him with forcing down the Iron Curtain, so it is odd that some of them have helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders.
CBS denies that it bowed to pressure yesterday when it decided to pull the program, but it had been besieged by talk-radio listeners and the Republican National Committee. The Republicans wanted a disclaimer on the screen every 10 minutes warning that the program contained fictional material. A conservative watchdog group [that's the MRC] urged advertisers to review the script before running commercials.
CBS's decision to hand the program off to the Showtime cable channel will leave it with a far smaller audience. Cable TV seems to have become the home of any programming with the least hint of political controversy. Meanwhile, the networks grow increasingly brave about broadcasting shows featuring lingerie models parading in the latest fashions, and ordinary people competing for cash by eating live insects.