Numerous reviews of ABC miniseries failed to note controversy surrounding its factual accuracy

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous newspapers ran positive reviews of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11 -- calling it "factual," "meticulous," and "completely true" -- failing to inform readers that it has been sharply criticized as inaccurate and even defamatory.

In recent days, numerous newspapers across the country ran positive reviews of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11 -- calling it "factual," "meticulous," and "completely true" -- failing completely to inform readers that it has been sharply criticized as inaccurate and even defamatory. In several other cases, the reviews noted that Democrats have assailed select scenes in the movie, but omitted the actual substance of their criticism.

While various parties have sharply criticized the film, the principal controversy lies with several scenes that depict Clinton administration officials undermining efforts to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the years prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In one such scene, former national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger decides at the last minute to abort a 1998 CIA mission to capture bin Laden. But as Media Matters for America and numerous others have noted, this account is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report -- which ABC originally cited as the film's basis. Berger has complained that the scene is a "total fabrication," and even conservative critics of the Clinton administration -- such as author and journalist Richard Miniter -- have criticized the scene in question as "based on an Internet myth" and having "no factual basis."

In a later scene, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is portrayed as responsible for having notified the Pakistani government in 1999 of a pending missile strike in Afghanistan intended to kill bin Laden. But while the 9-11 Commission report notes that "[o]fficials in Washington speculated" that the U.S. may have inadvertently "sent a warning to the Taliban or Bin Ladin," it does not assign blame or suggest Albright had any involvement.

Following are those reviews that presented the film as "factual" and "completely true," while ignoring altogether that Democrats and others have criticized key scenes as fabrications:

  • A September 10 review in the Chicago Tribune, supplied by the TV listings service Zap2it, warned of the film: "This should not be watched casually. Turn off the computer and forget about doing housework while watching. Gather the family; eventually, you will want to discuss it." The Tribune described the miniseries as "tell[ing] the most difficult parts: the why and how" and quoted actor Stephen Root saying of his experience working on the film, "This educated me tremendously." Moreover, a caption that appeared below an accompanying photo in the print edition referred to the film as a "factual mini-series that points fingers and names names."
  • A September 8 Newsday review reported that the filmmakers "compress" the 9-11 Commission report "into 4 1/2 fierce hours that portray in meticulous detail both the patient planning by the people who pulled off the hijack-murder plot and the many missed opportunities of those who might have headed off the day's death and destruction." The review later described the miniseries as "more like bang-up drama than fact-filled documentary," but then claimed that the underlying "facts pass informative muster."
  • A September 10 Orlando Sentinel review claimed that ABC "is performing a public service by examining progress in the fight against terrorism." The Sentinel went on to inform viewers that the film's "showmanship has been tempered by meticulous attention to accuracy." (The author, television critic Hal Boedecker, subsequently amended his review on his OrlandoSentinel.com blog. He admitted that he had based his assessment of the film's accuracy solely on former New Jersey Gov. and 9-11 Commission member Tom Kean's statement to him that "the spirit of this is absolutely correct. This is the story of how it happened." Boedecker conceded, "I regret praising its accuracy -- praise this miniseries doesn't deserve." He added, however, "Beyond the Clinton officials' complaints, the miniseries should come with a warning: It is hugely difficult television that challenges the audience. Berger wants to write it off. I don't think you can.")
  • A September 10 review in The Providence Journal reported that the miniseries is "compelling and confounding, gripping and disturbing. And it's all completely true. ... All the details are documented."

Following are those reviews that mentioned the controversy surrounding the film but either failed to detail the substance of the criticism or dismissed the complaints as irrelevant:

  • A September 10 Austin American-Statesman review declared that " 'The 9/11 Commission Report,' that 568-page government tome that turned out to be a surprise best-seller two summers ago, comes to television tonight." The review described the controversy as "stemming from former Clinton aides' claims that too much blame is placed on them" and described the uproar as "superfluous considering there is ample blame spread between the Clinton and Bush administrations." Further, the review quoted executive producer Marc Platt referring to Kean as the film's "guardian of accuracy."
  • A September 9 Rocky Mountain News review described the miniseries as "by far, television's most ambitious, meticulous attempt to chronicle the events that led to that awful day." In addressing the controversy, the review noted that some "liberal bloggers already have criticized the film for being unfair to Clinton," but attributed this to the fact that the 9-11 Commission report "was critical of both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarding their policies on terrorism. So political feathers are bound to be ruffled."
  • A September 8 Denver Post review noted the controversy over the scene involving Berger but went on to declare, "Whether the U.S. let bin Laden slip as depicted here, or whether the event never happened, as former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke alleges, is beside the point." The review further argued that while the film has been "described as anti-Clinton and pro-Patriot Act, 'Path to 9/11' actually depicts U.S. bungling in the Middle East as historic and bipartisan."
  • A September 10 Detroit Free Press review described the miniseries as a "provocative global odyssey," while noting that the Center for American Progress has alleged "factual inaccuracies." The review never detailed these allegations, however, but later asserted that the film "seems extremely scrupulous in trying not to assign blame for the events of 9/11 to the administrations of either Clinton or President George W. Bush."
  • A September 10 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review described the miniseries as "so complex and even suspenseful that it may remind you more of theatrical releases 'Traffic' and 'Syriana.' " The review noted that the film's "accuracy has been challenged by some of those it portrays," but nonetheless urged viewers to "[t]ake 'The Path to 9/11' for what it is: an exceptionally moving memorial."
  • A September 10 Dallas Morning News review stated that the film -- when divorced from the "flaming hot controversy" surrounding it -- is an "an ambitious, consistently interesting cautionary tale." The review provided little detail about the basis for the controversy, however, simply noting that Clinton administration officials have criticized the film as "unconscionable and untruthful" because of "its depiction of wasted golden opportunities to either capture or kill Osama bin Laden."
  • A September 10 Charlotte Observer review reported that the film is "powerful and provocative," despite being criticized "in some quarters as an agenda-driven pot of propaganda." The review noted that the film documents the "intelligence blunders and paralysis of the Clinton White House," before citing ABC's acknowledgement that "it took dramatic license with the miniseries."
  • In a September 9 review, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jonathan Storm criticized the film as "another misguided TV attempt to make entertainment out of recent history" but also assailed those Democrats who decried the film as "a slanderous, irresponsible fraud." Storm later noted ABC's decision to edit parts of the miniseries so "so that blame for security failures would not be assigned individually."

In contrast with the examples listed above, several newspapers ran reviews of The Path to 9/11 that more accurately described the reasons for the controversy. For instance, in a September 9 review, Seattle Post-Intelligencer television critic Melanie McFarland described in detail the questionable scenes depicting Berger and Albright as hindering U.S. efforts to catch Bin Laden. McFarland then noted, "A growing group of people from both sides of the aisle, including Albright and former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, says neither the Berger nor Albright scene happened." She later wrote, "[T]here's a difference between creating composite characters and dialogue to flesh out a scene, and inserting information that changes the factual nature of a line of documented history."

Similarly, in a September 9 review, Oregonian columnist Peter Ames Carlin reported that Clinton administration officials had criticized ABC for "including scenes that not only didn't happen but also were highly critical of the real people whose actions they purport to dramatize." He went on to detail the scenes involving Berger and Albright, which he described as "not true." Additionally, a September 9 review by Los Angeles Times staff writer Samantha Bonar noted that Albright "called a scene depicting her actions as 'false and defamatory.'" Bonar described the miniseries as "an irresponsible film, with its factual distortions wrapped in a really terrific package that lulls viewers into complacency."

"ABC's two-part movie explains the how and why of attacks," Jacqueline Cutler of Zap2it, Chicago Tribune, 9/10/06:

Leaving an audience scared, silent and queasy are not the typical hallmarks of a great film. For ABC's two-part movie "The Path to 9/11," Sunday and Monday, Sept. 10 and 11, they are the right reactions.

Many documentaries and feature films commemorate the fifth anniversary of the worst day in American history. Most tell a part of the story: the perspective of widows and parents of dead children, who pushed the government to study the attacks, or the mechanics of the towers collapsing, or how firefighters and police officers went beyond bravery. This tells the most difficult parts: why and how.

This should not be watched casually. Turn off the computer and forget about doing housework while watching. Gather the family; eventually, you will want to discuss it. Be aware, though, it is, by necessity, violent.

"This educated me tremendously," says Stephen Root, ("NewsRadio") who plays Richard Clarke, counterterrorism adviser to four presidents. "Sadly, I was uninformed before I started the project. I heard about the '93 bombing but didn't know anything about it. In this, the first hour is about that, and the people they caught, and that is just the start."

"On the winding roads to Sept. 11," Diane Werts, Newsday, 9/8/06:

The operative word in this title is actually the second one. "The Path to 9/11" is indeed about a path of action - and also the road not taken. The tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001 are the end point. From that destination, this ambitious ABC miniseries traces back routes spreading out all over the map - some of them free-flowing pipelines that might have been effectively blocked if the world had been paying proper attention.

That attitude is based, like this electric two-part film, on the report of the independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission led by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean. Scriptwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh and director David L. Cunningham compress that study's 568 pages, covering nearly a decade, into 4 1/2 fierce hours that portray in meticulous detail both the patient planning by the people who pulled off the hijack-murder plot and the many missed opportunities of those who might have headed off the day's death and destruction.

[...]

Prompt action is one thing - and the film is blunt about the times Osama bin Laden got away when "we had him" - but only retrospect brings the clarity with which "Path to 9/11" frames prospective moves that might have been advantageous. Or, just maybe, precipitous or ill-fated.

The filmmakers' assurance makes this miniseries play more like bang-up drama than fact-filled documentary. Yet their facts pass informative muster, and emotional validity, too.

"A hard look at how we arrived at 9-11," Hal Boedeker, Orlando Sentinel, 9/10/06:

Ready for a true viewing challenge? ABC invites you to relive the nation's spotty war on terror before the Sept. 11 attacks five years ago. The Disney-owned network hopes you'll devote more than five hours to that painful topic.

ABC commissioned The Path to 9-11, a miniseries that depicts pivotal events from The 9-11 Commission Report. This $30 million production is mammoth, ambitious and audacious.

The network's risk-taking recalls its gambles years ago on Roots and War and Remembrance. ABC is performing a public service by examining progress in the fight against terrorism.

But The Path to 9-11 should come with a warning: Hard television ahead.

[...]

The care lavished on The Path to 9-11 recalls a TV era when miniseries were prestige productions. The handheld photography can be tiring, but the editing and production design are top-notch. The miniseries was shot in Morocco as well as Toronto, New York and Washington.

Some reviewers said The 9-11 Commission Report read like a thriller, but The Path to 9-11 doesn't play like one. The showmanship has been tempered by meticulous attention to accuracy. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9-11 Commission, served as senior consultant to the production.

The Path to 9-11 is admirable. It is thoughtful. But it's not a production to sweep you away, and perhaps that's a good thing. Instead, the miniseries leaves you to contemplate unsettling issues.

"The Path to 9/11," Brian Rourke, The Providence Journal, 9/10/06:

The two-part, five-hour ABC special airing Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on Channels 5 and 6 is compelling and confounding, gripping and disturbing. And it's all completely true. The program, which gives TV docudramas a good name, is based on the 9/11 Commission Report, which was published in 2004.

All the details are documented. All the characters are real; so are the events, unfortunately.

"Miniseries asks: How could Sept. 11 have happened?" Diane Holloway, Austin American-Statesman, 9/10/06:

"The 9/11 Commission Report," that 568-page government tome that turned out to be a surprise best-seller two summers ago, comes to television tonight in a mammoth five-hour dramatization featuring 247 actors from 14 countries.

Pegged to the fifth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, ABC's "The Path to 9/11" is chilling, thrilling and, in the final analysis, depressing as all get-out. But it is fascinating at every turn.

The controversy that has erupted over the film, stemming from former Clinton aides' claims that too much blame is placed on them, seems superfluous considering there is ample blame spread between the Clinton and Bush administrations.

[...]

"What we found was 19 people came into this country to do us harm, and our government failed in every way to stop or even slow down their plot at any stage," said Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey whom President George W. Bush appointed as chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission in 2002.

Kean, who remains passionate on the topic, served as a consultant on the film, shepherding scriptwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh as he winnowed hundreds of real-life characters to a manageable few for the purpose of focus.

Executive producer Marc Platt refers to Kean as "the guardian of accuracy," which, considering that the drama comes from an official government document and is highly critical, is an important mission.

[...]

Hindsight can be frustrating or instructive. Kean and the film's producers hope "The Path to 9/11," which portrays with authenticity the people and events that led us to that terrible day, will enlighten us and help keep us safe.

"Docudrama stirring debate," Dusty Saunders, Rocky Mountain News, 9/9/06:

The Path to 9/11 is a long, winding electronic road. It allows viewers to make stops inside the White House and the offices of the CIA and FBI. The six-hour docudrama provides side trips into several countries in the Middle East.

The road ends inside the World Trade Center.

Based on The 9/11 Commission Report and other sources, the two-part miniseries premiering Sunday is, by far, television's most ambitious, meticulous attempt to chronicle the events that led to that awful day.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, 9/11 Commission co-chairman, served as the project's main adviser. Keep in mind that a docudrama is a TV hybrid - a mixture of documentation and a dramatic script that can produce major public controversy.

The commission report was critical of both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarding their policies on terrorism. So political feathers are bound to be ruffled, since scenes of executives dealing (or not dealing) with the threat of terrorism provide the meat and potatoes of the production. Several liberal bloggers already have criticized the film for being unfair to Clinton.

"9/11 hindsight that's rigorous and important," Joanne Ostrow, The Denver Post, 9/8/06:

A controversy rages concerning a climactic scene in the ABC drama "The Path to 9/11," airing in two parts, commercial-free, Sunday and Monday.

In the scene in question, CIA agents and the Northern Alliance had spotted Osama bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan in 1998. They knew the al-Qaeda leader was there; they could level the place with missiles but needed the go-ahead from Washington. Up and down the chain of command, the U.S. was unable to move on the information, fearing negative fallout. Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national security adviser, is depicted as indecisive, hanging up on the field team. Supremely frustrated, the team stood down.

Whether the U.S. let bin Laden slip as depicted here, or whether the event never happened, as former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke alleges, is beside the point. Dramatic license doesn't affect the underlying theme, that America was naive and bureaucratically stymied through the terrorist buildup before 9/11.

It would be a shame if the politicization of this laudable effort kept viewers away.

[...]

While it's been described as anti-Clinton and pro-Patriot Act, "Path to 9/11" actually depicts U.S. bungling in the Middle East as historic and bipartisan. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations come off as inept and squeamish in the face of the terrorist threat.

[...]

In a teleconference Tuesday, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission and consultant on the project, said he "would be surprised if people didn't object" to their portrayals. "It's a colossal failure of government. People in both administrations are not going to be happy if portrayed accurately."

These are "historically open questions: did Sandy Berger hang up? Did they have Osama bin Laden in sight? This is not a documentary." In fact, the scene in Afghanistan is a composite.

Remember, Kean said, the idea of the assassination of bin Laden at that point was a serious question. "It was a very different time."

"Gripping work retraces 'Path to 9/11,'" Joanne Weintraub, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 9/10/06:

If you've watched many network docudramas, the news that ABC was planning a five-hour miniseries based on the events leading up to the tragedy of Sept. 11 didn't inspire much confidence.

Against the odds, however, "The Path to 9/11" is as gripping a film as any broadcast network has produced in recent memory, so complex and even suspenseful that it may remind you more of theatrical releases "Traffic" and "Syriana" than of the usual made-for-TV attempts at serious historical drama.

Working from the federal government's official Sept. 11 commission reports and other sources, screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh ("The Day Reagan Was Shot"), a Madison native, and director David L. Cunningham ("To End All Wars") not only look at the depth and breadth of this country's greatest national security failure but manage to keep you on the edge of your seat despite the fact that you know all too well what's coming.

[...]

ABC executives say they hope the miniseries will awaken Americans to the dangers we still face from terrorism.

That's probably too much to expect of a television drama, especially one whose accuracy has been challenged by some of those it portrays. Take "The Path to 9/11" for what it is: an exceptionally moving memorial.

"ABC's '9/11' succeeds as drama TV: As far as truth goes, it isn't the final word," Ed Bark, Dallas Morning-News, 9/10/06:

Divorce ABC's The Path to 9/11 from the flaming hot controversy and we have an ambitious, consistently interesting cautionary tale anchored by Harvey Keitel's rock-solid portrayal of a heat-seeking FBI agent.

Shot documentary-style with loads of handheld camera jitters, it coherently and compellingly retraces 8 1/2 years of oft-ineffectual responses to a new breed of international terrorism.

The drama, which airs tonight and Monday, by no means rates a free pass, though. The ultrasensitive subject matter understandably has split our increasingly polarized real world. This time it's the left on the offensive, with former President Clinton and many of his top aides assailing the five-hour miniseries as unconscionable and untruthful. Principally at issue is its depiction of wasted golden opportunities to either capture or kill Osama bin Laden three years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

President Clinton, shown only in videotaped snippets, is characterized as being too preoccupied with the Monica Lewinsky scandal to take decisive action.

[...]

ABC has acknowledged from the start that Path to 9/11 contains some fictionalized scenes for "dramatic and narrative purposes." Source material includes the official 9/11 Commission Report and "other published materials and personal interviews." The drama's principal consultants are Thomas H. Kean, the commission's Republican co-chairman, and former ABC News reporter John Miller (portrayed in the film by Barclay Hope), who in 1998 interviewed Mr. bin Laden.

"ABC's '9/11': a worthy miniseries with a gripping story," Mike Duffy, Detroit Free Press, 9/10/06:

Executive producer Marc Platt ("Empire Falls") and his creative team -- basing their dramatic account on "The 9/11 Commission Report" and a few other sources -- weave a provocative global odyssey of terror cells, bureaucratic bungling, intelligence agency wrangling, agonizingly missed opportunities and the disturbing rise of a mysterious man named Osama bin Laden and the dangerous terrorist network known as al-Qaida.

[...]

There have already been rumblings of controversy and criticism for "The Path to 9/11." The Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group, has slammed the docudrama, alleging factual inaccuracies. The group said Tuesday in a news release that "the miniseries largely casts blame for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks on the Clinton administration while whitewashing the failures of the Bush administration."

"The Path to 9/11" does use the standard historical docudrama disclaimer in regard to telescoping events with "time compression" and using "composite and representative characters."

And in one cheesy note of semiexploitation, the film relies rely rather heavily on news images of former President Bill Clinton embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, leading to congressional impeachment hearings. The implication? The president might have missed a chance to nab Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s because of the distracting pressures of the impeachment imbroglio.

"This president is not going to take chances," Richard Clarke is quoted as saying.

But on balance, over five often compelling hours, "The Path to 9/11" seems extremely scrupulous in trying not to assign blame for the events of 9/11 to the administrations of either Clinton or President George W. Bush.

If anything, Republicans and conservatives might have a minor beef about the casting of Penny Johnson Jerald as Condoleezza Rice after the actress' star turn as diabolical First Lady Sherry Palmer on "24."

But the blame game seems a pointless exercise five years on in the still-hurtful aftermath of a nightmare that will live forever.

"In a sea of specials, Path to 9/11 is the one to watch," Mark Washburn, Charlotte Observer, 9/10/06:

ABC's "Path to 9/11," criticized last week in some quarters as an agenda-driven pot of propaganda, is worthy of attacking because it is the most powerful and provocative special of the crop.

It presents the back story on the years of events that led to the savagery of that September morning, chronicling the missed opportunities, intelligence blunders and paralysis of the Clinton White House during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Somehow "Path to 9/11" escaped the excesses of the miniseries genre, delivering a taut, well-acted and superbly written drama in which the inescapable conclusion is, in the words of the old cartoon possum Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

ABC acknowledged that it took dramatic license with the miniseries, based on the official report of the 9/11 Commission and other research.

"Another wrong being done," Jonathan Storm, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/9/06:

ABC's controversial mini-series The Path to 9/11, which airs tomorrow and Monday, will dully drum that idea into the brain of the poor viewers who fail to change the channel.

But the fictionalized run-up to that day of terror doesn't just catalog the mistakes that allowed the attack to happen. It's a mistake itself, another misguided TV attempt to make entertainment out of recent history. Over and over again, the movie goes something like this:

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blow it up. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Also mistaken are the Democrats, who wailed at the movie's skewed perspective, calling it "a slanderous, irresponsible fraud" and demanding that the show be pulled. All they have done is draw attention to something so soporific that viewers otherwise would be snoozing quietly long before any insults to the Clinton administration hit the screen.

[...]

Loosely based on the commission report that was a best-seller when it came out, the show, as sent out to critics, does take a few sidesteps into Clinton-bashing.

The hero characterizes the president's stance: "It's OK if somebody kills bin Laden, as long as he didn't give the order. It's pathetic."

"Are any men left in Washington?" asks the valiant freedom fighter. "Or are they all cowards?"

[...]

The network commissioned the project, written by Cyrus Nowrasteh (Into the West), whom Tom McMahon, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, characterized as a "right-wing conservative writer."

Nowrasteh, apparently, can't buy a break. Reagan administration officials criticized him in 2001 for the Showtime movie The Day Reagan Was Shot.

[...]

In this case, ABC, which sent out what seemed to be finished copies of the show last month and told the National Review's Stephen Spruiell that it was "locked and ready to air," has announced it was doing some editing.

An ABC executive told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that "adjustments and refinements" were being made so that blame for security failures would not be assigned individually. Revisions had been under way for weeks, that executive reportedly said.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
Network/Outlet
ABC, ABC Entertainment
Stories/Interests
The Path to 9/11, Propaganda/Noise Machine
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