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ABC alters 9/11 show under pressure

September 07, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

ABC's upcoming five-hour docudrama "The Path to 9/11" is quickly becoming a political cause celebre.

The network has in recent days made changes to the film, set to air Sunday and Monday, after leading political figures, many of them Democrats, complained about bias and alleged inaccuracies. Meanwhile, a left-wing organization has launched a letter-writing campaign urging the network to "correct" or dump the miniseries, while conservative blogs have launched a vigorous defense.

"The Path to 9/11," whose large ensemble includes Harvey Keitel and Patricia Heaton, offers a panoramic sweep of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The movie dramatizes what it deems intelligence and operational failures of the Clinton and Bush administrations, relying heavily on public records. Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 commission, served as a consultant.

After a screening of the first episode in Washington last week, some audience members attacked the film's depiction of the Clinton administration's pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Among those unhappy was Richard Ben-Veniste, an attorney and member of the 9/11 commission whom some conservatives have dismissed as a Democratic attack dog. Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, has criticized the movie for suggesting that the Clinton administration was in a position to capture Bin Laden in 1998 but canceled the mission at the last minute.

After much discussion, ABC executives and the producers toned down, but did not eliminate entirely, a scene that involved Clinton's national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, declining to give the order to kill Bin Laden, according to a person involved with the film who declined to be identified because of the sensitivities involved.

"That sequence has been the focus of attention," the source said, adding: "These are very slight alterations."

In addition, the network decided that the credits would say the film is based "in part" on the 9/11 commission report, rather than simply "based on" the bestselling report, as the producers originally intended.

ABC, meanwhile, is tip-toeing away from the film's version of events. In a statement, the network said the miniseries "is a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews."

The statement adds: "The events that lead to 9/11 originally sparked great debate, so it's not surprising that a movie surrounding those events has revived the debate. The attacks were a pivotal moment in our history that should never be forgotten and it's fitting that the discussion continues."

None of ABC's moves is likely to quell the debate, however.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group, said on Wednesday it had collected 25,000 letters asking ABC to either correct or cancel the miniseries. "The miniseries presents an agenda that blames the Clinton administration for the 9/11 attacks while ignoring numerous errors and failures of the Bush administration," the center said in a news release.

Couric draws viewers to CBS

It's way too early to tell whether CBS has permanently changed news junkies' habits, but Katie Couric's first night at the helm of "CBS Evening News" broke records.

An average of 13.6 million viewers tuned in to see Couric's inaugural telecast, according to Nielsen Media Research, far more than the 8 million the network and TV veterans were expecting.

It was the most-watched "Evening News" since February 1998, when the program was buoyed by coverage of the Nagano Winter Olympics. CBS crushed "NBC Nightly News" (7.8 million) and ABC's "World News" (7.6 million).

But CBS may want to wait before taking a victory lap. The rival newscasts held up relatively well, given the advance hype for the former "Today" co-host. That suggests that Couric attracted many fans who don't typically watch the evening news -- and may not stick around after the novelty fades. Moreover, habits of evening news watchers can take a long time to break.

Channel Island is a blog about the television industry. For the latest posting, go to latimes.com/channelisland. Contact reporter Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.

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