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FIVE YEARS AFTER | REGARDING MEDIA / TIM RUTTEN

ABC follows a path to shame

September 09, 2006|TIM RUTTEN

SURVEYING the smoking ruin that is ABC's reputation after the "The Path to 9/11" debacle, it's hard to know whether you're looking at the consequence of unadulterated folly or of a calculated strategy that turned out to be too clever by half.

At the end of the day, it probably doesn't make much difference because, either way, the lacerating controversy surrounding the network's docu-dramatic re-creation of events leading to Sept. 11 is an entirely self-inflicted wound. For most of the week, ABC rather haughtily attempted to characterize itself as the victim of philistines, or self-righteously as a champion of free speech or, more pathetically, as just plain misunderstood by people who just don't understand how television is done.

It is none of those things.

It's an opportunistic and self-interested organization that somehow thought it could approach the most wrenching American tragedy since Pearl Harbor with the values that prevail among network television executives -- the sort of ad hoc ethics that would make a streetwalker blush -- and that nobody would mind.

That part of this whole shabby sequence of events is the hardest to fathom. It's well understood, of course, that docudramas are seldom documentary and only sporadically dramatic. As a rule, they're basically devices to free unimaginative writers from the burden of having to make up characters' names. You simply appropriate the names of real people, then make them do whatever attention-getting thing fills the allotted time.

But did the people who run ABC Entertainment -- the network division directly responsible for this mess -- really believe that Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger would watch themselves on television doing and saying thing they never did or said and not object? When these fictional incidents were portrayed as contributing to the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people, did they think that the former Clinton administration officials and others so caricatured simply would shrug and say, "Well, that's dramatic license for you?" Did they really expect anyone to accept the preposterous notion that -- as some at the network argued this week -- the film's facts were wrong, but its "essence" was true? These people really need to get out more.

What's easier to understand is what ABC thought it was up to with its marketing of "The Path to 9/11" and why it thought a successful marketing campaign might lead our politically polarized nation to feverishly overlook the network's irresponsibility toward history. After all, why should the many thousands of Americans still grieving for loved ones lost five years ago care about an accurate account of the governmental decisions that may have contributed to those deaths when they could get a good dose of "essence"?

Over the past weeks, the network flooded the country with advance copies of its film. Some sources put the number of DVDs in circulation at 900. An ABC spokeswoman, who demanded to be "off the record" said Friday that she couldn't confirm 900 copies, but that the number "certainly was more than 500." She promised to e-mail back an accurate count; she never did. Many of those copies were directed at right-wing talk show hosts and, some, to Republican bloggers, who long have argued that -- however complacent the Bush administration may initially been concerning radical Islamic terrorism -- Clinton and his people overlooked far more signs of Al Qaeda's lethality for a far longer period of time. These commentators were delighted to see that ABC's docu-dramatic version of events supported their view. So, for weeks they've been talking the film up on their radio programs and analyzing its merits on their blogs. ABC, in other words, appeared to have replicated the marketing triumph Mel Gibson scored by screening "The Passion of the Christ" to selected evangelical Christian audiences inclined to be sympathetic.

If ABC had had Gibson's manic discipline -- about marketing, at least -- it might have succeeded. However, with that many copies in circulation, interested Democrats and former Clinton administration officials soon saw the movie and began picking its ludicrous inaccuracies apart in protests to ABC and -- more important -- directly to Robert Iger, the chief executive of Disney, the network's parent company. By Friday, even the film's star, Harvey Keitel, was telling an interviewer: "You cannot cross the line from a conflation of events to a distortion of the event. Where we have distorted something, we made a mistake and it should be corrected."

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