Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Truth is the First Casualty

There's a line in an old song by The Eagles -- come to think of it, all the songs by The Eagles are old now -- that goes something like "I know my life would look all right, if I could see it on the silver screen". It might've been the first hint that the tsunami that became movies based on fact and "reality television" was headed our way.

It's odd that everyone accepts reality television as "reality" when its mostly not; and perhaps even odder that we demand our truth based fiction be completely factually accurate.

When I was running "Top Cops", every page of script was vetted by CBS lawyers demanding that it accurately reflect court transcript, sworn police statements and any other document which proved the veracity of the events we were recreating. Still, we got sued almost every episode. Somewhere, somebody, a witness, a victim, an uncredited police officer or the perpetrator himself would come forward to say we got it wrong and had done irreparable damage in the process.

Four full seasons of lawsuits and we never lost one -- mostly because the facts spoke for themselves but the people who experienced the events had a different truth, either one they needed to believe for their own personal peace of mind, or one they needed others to believe for less noble motives.

In the last year, three films were released which dealt with the events of September 11, 2001. Two of those films, "United 93" and "World Trade Center" included massive amounts of material, scenes, dialogue, characters and characteristics of characters for which no supportive documentation exists. They were rendered true solely through the creative talents of the writers and other artists associated with their production. Both received critical acclaim and resulted in few if any calls for them to be removed from distribution for these moments of fiction.

A third film, "The Path to 9/11" suffered a far different fate. It was ridiculed as being filled with inaccuracies, pilloried as a blatant attempt to rewrite history and place blame for the events of that day where it did not belong. A campaign was launched to prevent it from being broadcast and to have scenes re-edited or excised.

I lost six friends in the twin towers on 9/11, New York police officers I had worked with and come to know during the many ride-a-longs I did in producing "Top Cops". One of my neighbors works for United Airlines and flew as a flight attendant with the pilots of United 93 mere days before the events that took their lives. What happened that day reverberates with me in a very personal way.

For that reason and others, I joined in the chorus of derision that was heaped on "The Path to 9/11". Like many of the politicians, media spinners and others who once found reason to sue me, I had come to believe my own truth about that day and the film questioned those beliefs.

Cyrus Nowrasteh, writer of "The Path to 9/11" recently published an article in the Writers Guild of America's magazine "Written By" to give his side of the story. His words moved me greatly, made me realize I was wrong and how much we, as writers, are both at the mercy of, and part of, the same forces that want to bury the truths we tell.

Cyrus has graciously agreed to allow me to re-publish his Written By piece below. I hope you'll read it and take what he has to say to heart.


Written by Cyrus Nowrasteh

From the December 2006 issue of "Written By"

When I took on the assignment to write The Path to 9/11 for ABC, I felt it was the most important and the most sensitive project that I, or any writer, could tackle. For that reason, and because of a deeply felt personal responsibility toward the story and those who died, I knew the research had to be impeccable. The 9/11 Commission Report, of course, was central, but other books were purchased, and many more referenced, along with personal interviews, articles, and an array of consultants. An entire staff of lawyers viewed and reviewed every scene, every bit of dialogue and action, both in the writing process and after it was shot. I would venture to say that no movie or miniseries has ever been so carefully vetted and, hence, as accurate in its presentation of a story that covers 8 1/2 years, numerous continents, and 260 characters.

The one thing I did not do in preparing this project was to get the approval of politicians. Any politicians. I did not do it then, and I would not do it now. Why? Because if there is one batch of sources with a clear agenda, with clear partisanship, it would be politicians. The public deserves better than that. The victims of terrorism before 9/11 and since deserve better than that.

But, somehow, politicians injected themselves into this-in a big way. The spin-machine was out in full force against The Path to 9/11, long before it aired, and the media and others bought the spin. Just like book-burners have always done. The spinners mounted a witch hunt against me that knew no bounds. Far-left bloggers posted my home phone number and address on the Internet with the following message: “The gloves are off. Accidents occur.” As one would expect, the death threats and hate mail followed. The police visited my house twice, and the FBI called to follow up on the reports. An anchor of a major cable network show contacted a high school friend looking for dirt. With a few exceptions, most of the TV and print media launched a libelous campaign to discredit me, led by the Los Angeles Times, which, in an attempt to provoke, ethnically profiled me as an “Iranian-American politically conservative Muslim.” Wrong on all but one count: I am an American.

The critical question that the media didn't ask, that so many seem to have missed, is why were they so upset? Why mount such an unprecedented campaign against a movie before it airs? Why push so hard to get it pulled off the air? Why?
Maybe the truth had something to do with it.

In Fact…

The fact-checking on The Path to 9/11 was of the highest standards. I would gladly put its veracity up against any docudrama ever made. Over Labor Day weekend, Disney/ABC brought in outside counsel to double-check the factual basis for the script (all 350 pages of annotations and their sources), and they concluded that it was rock-solid. I, and others, maintain that the minor cuts made in the show for broadcast were to mollify the unprecedented political machine out to kill the show. These minor cuts amounted to a little more than three minutes of screen time in a five-hour presentation-and they didn't alter the intent or meaning of the scenes affected.

But the larger issue here-for writers, filmmakers, and artists-is the attack on the First Amendment perpetrated by the spinners. Senator Harry Reid and five other senators sent a letter to Disney/ABC threatening revocation of their station licenses if they did not pull or recut the movie. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter spoke on the House floor, suggesting that they need to “consider the backgrounds of the people behind this.” These outrageous statements, made before the miniseries aired, were uttered by people who freely admitted that they had not seen it but had only heard what was in the movie. In other words, rumor was their basis, censorship their goal.

The tactics of these Washington lawmakers-and their supporters-are no less than the tools of modern McCarthyism, something historians are keen to study as long as it's 50 years ago. MoveOn.org sent out e-mails demanding the movie be “yanked” and accusing me of being a “right-wing activist who fabricated key scenes to blame Democrats and defend Republicans.” Anyone who has seen the movie knows this last claim is ridiculous. We are just as hard on the Bush administration failures as we are on those of the Clinton administration. In effect, the movie is an equal-opportunity offender-but if you followed the spin and didn't see it, you might be persuaded like a recent POV columnist who called me a propagandist and fictionalizer. I remember a time when writers stood up for one another's creative rights. In fact, no one stood up for this movie-not the ACLU, the WGA, PEN, the DGA-no organizations devoted to artists' rights spoke up. After all, we'd been characterized as “right-wing fanatics”-who in Hollywood would defend such?

As for characterizing me as a right-winger, I'm the guy who wrote and directed "The Day Reagan Was Shot", which portrayed the Reagan administration in chaos, for which the movie was viciously attacked by conservatives. I also wrote "10,000 Black Men Named George", whose hero, A. Philip Randolph, was a notorious African-American Communist who leads the movie's union struggles. I won the PEN award for both of these films, and PEN is not known for being partial to conservatives. Just for the record, I am not now and never have been, nor will ever be, a member of any political party. The chief reason: to protect my writing from any idealogical censorship either internally or externally imposed.

Hysteria has no oxygen for facts or truth. One of the more illustrative examples of this was CNN's Wolf Blitzer and a panel condemning the movie when none of them had seen it-hence we had former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright responding to questions about a scene that did not exist.

In fact, after watching the miniseries the following people came out publicly in support of it:

• Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Osama bin Laden unit at the CIA's counterterrorist center and clearly no fan of either the Bush or Clinton administrations nor the 9/11 Commission, e-mailed ABC News to insist that “the core of the movie is irrefutably true.”

• Gary Schroen, former CIA field agent who was the first American into Afghanistan after 9/11, said publicly that “the movie is remarkably accurate.”

• Lt. Col. Robert Patterson, chief White House military aide to President Clinton, said “in terms of conveying how the Clinton administration handled its opportunities to get bin Laden, it's 100 percent factually correct.” Patterson declared, “I was there with Clinton and [National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger and watched the missed opportunities occur.”

• Steven Emerson, one of the foremost terrorism experts in the world, a man who has testified and briefed Congress dozens of times on terrorism, said that “The Path to 9/11 is 100 percent accurate.”


The individuals above, speaking to the veracity of The Path to 9/11, are not politicians “spinning”-they were there, and some still are, fighting the war on terror. They know what happened. The facts of the matter and the truth they reveal are not just so much political currency, no matter how loud the politicos or media pundits scream otherwise. The Path to 9/11 is just the messenger.

No more, no less.

Sadly, the hysteria distracted from that message, the one and only “agenda.” From the first day to the last, it was a simple one: to enact in historically accurate fashion that 9/11 was merely one more step in an escalating pattern of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism against the U.S. To remind the public of recent history. To place 9/11 in context. To illustrate the trajectory of attacks. To connect the proverbial dots of the past in the hope that we can connect them better in the future.

Not a day goes by even now where I don't run across some reference to it written in ignorance by someone who swallows whole what the election-crazed politicians dish out. Also, not a day goes by where I am not thanked personally by a neighbor, an acquaintance, a colleague, or a stranger. Regardless what the media, the politicos, the perpetually outraged bloggers, or even many in the film community think, this project was a privilege from start to finish. And I stand by every word of it.


DMc said...

I can't look into Cyrus' heart and see the truth or the spin at the heart of what he's saying. I'm glad written by gave him his chance to respond, and I'm glad that you reprinted it here.

However, nothing happens in a vacuum. The problem with The Path to 9/11 is that it purports to be based on that report, and some of the key choices made in the film go directly against the conclusions in the report. I'm not going to repeat the list, because it's rehashing an old argument that's been hashed to death already.

If you are going to say -- as this show did -- that it is the most accurate telling of what happened on 9/11, then you have to be prepared to take the hit when elements turn out to be true. It is also true that the Path to 9/11 (I did watch it) took great pains to amplify the missed opportunities under Clinton, and seriously downplay the culpability of the Bush White House.

Moreover, Cyrus' tellings of his trouble at the hand of the great left wing anger machine should be put in its proper context: these are the tactics pioneered, perfected, and used extensively by the right wing, neo-republicans for a long time now. (Note I did not say Conservative, here...the Bush republicans have very little whatsoever to do with conservatism.) If he was burned by the experience, then he was burned by an experience that was bought and paid for by the type of ideological take no prisoners, poisoning of the discourse that was pioneered not by lefties, but by and using the whole Fox news "fact free zone" spinworld.

After years of Wingnuts going unchallenged in this regard, Cyrus got the blowback. And that's sad. But again - he did take on the burden of the 9/11 report.

United 93 was a gripping movie, and seemed to have the feel of truth, and parts of it were even based on transcripts -- but because it didn't hold itself up to that "most accurate" standard, it escapes the conflagration.

Cyrus still insists that his film was accurate and sells the accuracy by selectively quoting certain people. Well, I'm sorry, but the consensus of history's spoken, and he still sounds like an apologist.

In the end, the biggest problem with the Path to 9/11 wasn't the innacuracies.

it was that it didn't work as drama. Not like World Trade Center or United 93

If inaccurate things were said about him, unfair aspersions cast upon his character, or if he was harassed, then that's deplorable and unfortunate.

But part of what we do also has to be wearing what we do, and accepting responsibility for what we do. It sounds to me like to Cyrus, it's still all somebody's fault.

And that, in its own way, says volumes too.

synge said...

I saw the CNN interview that Cyrus describes. Wolf Blitzer did point out that the movie had not aired, and he pointedly asked panelists if they had, in fact, seen the movie. People who hadn't seen it in entirety admitted it -- so I guess you could say that Wolf had his "facts" straight too.

I only mention this to illustrate what every writer worth his or her salt knows -- you can have all the "facts" straight, and still be spinning.

And I have to wonder about Cyrus' shock at the response.

Anybody who set out to write The Path to 9/11 who didn't expect political blowback would have to have been either blind, delusional, out of the continent for the last decade, or just plain out-of-it in general.