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Thou Shalt Not Lie…And All the Rest of It


Remember that Commandment, Cyrus Nowrasteh and David Cunningham? Boys, how do you square up all those contradictory notions competing in your heads? Let me see if I can get it straight. You love Jesus so much that you want to transform Hollywood from within, to fill television and film with His messages, which I assume you realize draw heavily on the Ten Commandments. Yet, you hate Bill Clinton so much that you are willing to lie to the world to smear his name for generations, by fabricating a narrative that bears false witness against Clinton and lays unfair blame for the 9/11 attacks at his feet. All to please an administration whose policies are killing thousands of Americans and Iraqis, with no end in sight. So, lying and killing is the way to spread the Jesus love?

Now, back to our regularly scheduled FDL programming. 

It has been a head-spinning day full of investigative revelations concerning the "Path to 9/11" saga. The blogs have been on fire–just trying to keep track of it all over at Open Letter to ABC has kept me hopping. DailyKos, Democratic Underground and TPM Muckraker have been all over the story of the movie’s ties to the secretive right-wing Christian group Youth with a Mission, and its sister company, The Film Institute. But Max Blumenthal, over at HuffPost, has also uncovered these groups’ ties to uber-wingnut David Horowitz and the twisted tale of how this fraudulent f***-up of a film moved through the ABC production channels and got promoted via Rush Limbaugh and all of wing-nuttery.

Because this is America, I respect these folks’ rights to speak their minds, but why is it that right-wingers must always have their actions cloaked in secrets and lies? Plastering the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission Report all over their zealous propaganda–and getting ABC to go along with it? How can Bob Iger allow the public airwaves to be so grossly misused? Trying to rewrite the history of 9/11 for political purposes is a crime against not only media, but our democracy. Mind-boggling is the word that comes to mind. 

And the next word that comes to mind is libel. I got an email this morning from University of Miami School of Law professor Michael Froomkin, alerting me to his musings on what ABC will face if they air this mini-series, with all the lies against Clinton, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Richard Clarke, etc., intact.  

Generally in the United States you can’t libel a public figure. [*] Plus, libel claims based on fiction are obviously much harder than claims based on assertions in supposed non-fiction. But neither of these bars is insurmountable. And on the facts as reported, they could be surmounted surprisingly easily.

As one New York court put it not so long ago, a claim of "libel by fiction" requires that "the description of the fictional character must be so closely akin to the real person claiming to be defamed that a reader of the book, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two." The novel Primary Colors didn’t meet that test as it didn’t use real names, nor were the physical description of any character like the plaintiff in that case. But the 9/11 show differs from Primary Colors in a very basic way: It uses actors portraying real people with their actual names involved in activities that are a blend of real things they did and of the partisan imagination. I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to get a court to see the difference from Primary Colors-like facts. Furthermore, even if ABC were to run a big disclaimer with the episode, that wouldn’t necessarily suffice.

It’s even harder to make out a case of libel when the victim is a public figure. Basically, to win you have to show that the author of the libelous work demonstrated a "reckless disregard for the truth." Given the public nature of the warnings that various scenes are false, if in fact they are false then I think this part of the case should be pretty easy.

If I were at ABC or Disney I’d be having a serious talk with my lawyers right about now.

And if I were a fly on the wall of Charlie Gibson’s office this week, I’m sure I’d be witnessing a great deal of hand-wringing. As a former MSM reporter, I know how very hard it can be to tell the truth when your corporate overlords are more concerned with bottomlines than with informing the citizenry. I used to try to report on the founding of Fox News while at Variety. Every time I wrote a hard-hitting piece, I’d get hauled to the editor’s woodshed and told I didn’t seem to know how to play the game. "We’re friends of industry, Jennifer," I was told. So, I was pretty darn thrilled to see Charlie and my local ABC affiliate covering the "Path to 9/11" controversy at all yesterday.  

I would imagine, though, that the more ABC Newsies learn about how icky this project truly is, they must be chomping at their bits to see this movie yanked. As the budget and staff shrink in the news division, these folks have to watch ABC Entertainment throw $40 million at a piece of propaganda that will cast a dark shadow over ABC for years to come. And what do they think about being locked out of this whole project and getting side-swiped like this? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for a network planning a two-night event about our great American tragedy to call on their own news division to research and vet an accurate portrayal of the events? Better to throw all the cash and responsibility at religious crusaders? That’s just incredibly moronic judgment on behalf of Iger & Co. Disney Board: A man with this kind of judgment should be running your conglomerate? 

If the news division had been in charge of crafting this program, you can bet that both co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, rather than just Republican Thomas Kean, would have been interviewed. That begs the question: Where is Democratic co-Chair Lee Hamilton? Sources tell me he’s back from Iraq this week, but hesitant to publicly jump into this fray. Mr. Hamilton should be heartened, as I am, that many conservatives have joined Democrats in demanding that ABC fix or pull this mini-series. This is not about defending Clinton, but about the integrity of our shared history.

Mr. Hamilton: Please stand up and be heard. Don’t let Thomas Kean and ABC airbrush and misrepresent 9/11. Your silence is deafening, sir.

Despite all the public statements, signatures, protests, journalism and media commentary that should be convincing ABC to realize their gross mistake, it appears, as of this writing, that they still plan to put some lipstick on this pig and air it. I guess with $40 million on the line, they have to do something. But  the still unanswered question is where exactly all the money came from? As Howard Dean put it today:

"The American people deserve to know who funded this $40 million dollar slanderous propaganda. Use of the public airwaves is a privilege conferred upon broadcasters in the public interest. It comes with a responsibility to the American people and a responsibility to the truth."

Did Youth With a Mission funnel money into this politically motivated movie? Unlikely , at least directly.Perhaps ABC put up all the money, and first hoped to recoup it in advertising, DVDs and foreign rights. Now, advertising is gone. And should ABC give up that primetime pulpit and Scholastic push for "Path to 9/11," it will be harder to sell DVDs and to hold onto those foreign rights deals. So, you can bet they’ll keep pushing hard to keep foreign media pushing their "based on the 9/11 Commission Report" line. 

But, it shouldn’t be about money. On this fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001, it should be about  coming together as a nation to mourn the lost lives and to consider where we are now. And our decisions going forward should be based on fact. Not fiction. 

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Jennifer Nix

Jennifer Nix