ABC Wins First Ever ToTSF “Sleaze Whiz” Award

As you might have heard, ABC will join the “Cynically Exploit 9-11 Crowd” and provide us with a “dramatization” of events that culminated in the attacks called The Road to 9-11. That wouldn’t win any awards, as just about everyone is doing something to cash in on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. What wins ABC special recognition, as reported in the San Jose Mercury is claiming to base the “dramtization” on the 9/11 Commission Report, then including a whole bunch of stuff not in the Report and fiercly denied by the historic participants. It gets sleazier when it turns out that (a) all the new “drama” stuff tilts toward making the Clintons and Dems generally look like wussy screw-ups interfering with out noble covert ops forces who could have “taken out” Osama before 9-11 happened; and (b) carefully pre-screening it to conservative pundits and bloggers to generate positive buzz, mobilize an army of defenders, and guarantee a huge audience share.

By happy coincidence for the Republicans and their true believer audience (who, thanks to Disney’s clever marketing strategy, will now watch this TV show in unprecedented droves), a depiction of the Clinton Administration and Democrats generally as standing in the way of our our heroic covert forces (portraying the Dems as such craven traitors to America they even refused to give the go ahead to our noble covert ops heroes to “take out” Osama Bin Laden over such silly qualms as the morality of assisination and operating cladestine ops on foreign soil — WUSSSES!!!!) is coming out when? Why, it’s coming out right before the mid-term elections! What a lucky break!

See, now this is the kind of multi-win sophisticated sleaze that rises above mere cynical exploitation or standard corporate suck-up to the powers in charge. It cries out for recognition! So please join me below as we give Disney/ABC the first ever Tales of the Sausage Factory “Sleaze Whiz” Award.

Thank you so much for joining me for my first ever “Sleeze Whiz” Award. As always, I think you can say what you want, but it sucks when a megacorp with control of the means of distribution gets to use its power to promote one point of view while denying the opportunity for others to respond. Whether Disney has merely cynically manipulated events to gaurantee a huge audience share, or whether it wants to use its media muscle to prop up a Congress more likely to pass broadcast flag regulation and give it other regulatory goodies, I cannot say. I suspect political pay off is merely a bank shot. But its that going for the extra gold that distinguishes a true “Sleaze Whiz” from your run of the mill sleazey marketing.

As some have already observed, ABC’s “docudrama” approach to “The Road to 9-11” is the mirror image of the flap several years ago over the CBS Bio-Pic, The Reagans. At that time, Republicans complained that CBS had made stuff up and deliberately slanted the bio-pic to make Reagan look bad. CBS bravely stood on principle until then-RNC Chair Ed Gillespie wrote CBS president Les Moonves to ever-so-politely express concern about The Reagans and suggest that a panel of historians and friends of the Reagans review it before airing. Within 24 hours, CBS folded. Les Moonves announced that, although he still believed the miniseries was historically accurate, CBS would move the miniseries to its premium cable channel Showtime, effectively moving it out of the public eye.

I do not expect protest to have the same impact here, as the Dems are not in power and are usually much more wussy about using it to punish those who cross them.

So what makes ABC’s “Road to 9-11” any more or less sleazey? Isn’t it just that this time it’s the conservatives getting the free ride on a network while the liberals fume? Doesn’t Michael Moore do the same thing in his “documentaries”? What makes ABC’s conduct here any more or less sleazey other than perspective?

Answer: ABC’s conduct in packaging and marketing this piece. ABC has promoted this (including on its official website for the show as “a dramatization of the events detailed in The 9/11 Commission Report and other sources.” While carefully mentioning it is a “dramatization,” ABC’s promotional materials do everything they can to suggest to the reader that it is portraying real events as documented by the 9/11 Commission. Describing the source material and the adaptation in the following way.

>The 9/11 Commission Report instantly became a national bestseller when it was published in July
>2004. Writer Cyrus Nowrasteh (“The Day Reagan Was Shot”) uses this historic document as the basis
>for a powerful story with action as gripping and far reaching as the source material itself. Shot in
>Toronto, Morocco, New York and Washington, DC, actors portray the famous and infamous, along with
>the formerly anonymous and often heroic people thrust onto history’s stage.

For those living in a cave, the 9/11 Commission was a bipartisan commission which conducted an exhaustive investigation into how our intelligence failed us and what to do to repair the damage and keep from getting surprised again. The 9/11 Commission Report was ultimately hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike as a neutral, unbiased, authoritative document on the history of 9/11. As such, the 9/11 Commission Report commands enormous respect.

So if you claim you are basing this production on the 9-11 Commission Report, emphasize the 9/11 Commission Report as the basis for the production repeatedly, and even conlude the 2 day mini-series with the formation of the 9/11 Commission, you are deliberately invoking that bipartisan and respected document to add an air of accuracy to your “dramatization.” To then include stuff from other sources that all slants in favor of one political perspective, including stuff that even conservative Clinton critic Richard Mitner says is an “internet myth” with no basis in reality, while at the same time you cut stuff from the actual 9/11 Commission Report which undercuts the partisan perspective you are highlighting, is bloody dishonest.

Which is what makes this different from the CBS Reagan bio-pic (which claimed no such mantle of bipartisan authority), Michael Moore, or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for that matter. When Michael Moore does a documentary that is an indictment of the Bush Administration, or Swift Boat Veterans put out a documentary that is an indictment of Kerry, they don’t hide their perspective. These producers will tell you all the reasons why they are telling the truth and the other side is full of baloney, but they don’t claim to rely on a neutral source while making stuff up (to the contrary, they take credit for their original work that, in their opinion, exposes the bias of the “neutral” sources). You know what you’re getting and, depending on your inclination, you either watch it, avoid it, or watch it and balance it out by also seeking other views.

Not so Disney’s “Road to 9/11,” which very clearly slants to the “pro-Bush/pro-Republican/Democrats are cowardly traitors/Clintons are in league with Satan” perspective while doing their best to pretend they hail from the “neutral bipartisan” perspective.

Disney gets bonus sleaze points for “covering itself” by using the words “and other sources” — without ever naming what these sources are! So not only does Disney get to rely on potentially discredited sources, Disney (and the army of rabid Road to 9/11 defenders, see below) can claim that they never promised to rely exclusively on the 9/11 Commission Report. They just created that impression to anyone casually reading their promotional material. But the subtle use of qualifiers like “based on” and “other sources” will allow suportive bloggers to endlessly split hairs, quibble, and heap invective upon those who dare to suggest that Disney dishonestly invoked the aura of respect around the 9/11 Commission Report to justify a partisan hack job that includes things the 9/11 Commission rejected.

O.K., that’s modest sleaze. But any used car dealer or carny can boast of such clever wording to build one set of expectations while wrking you over in the fine print. What puts “The Road to 9/11” over the top to become a real “Sleaze Whiz?”

Disney did not pre-screen the movie to those portrayed in a negative light, or to members of the 9/11 Commission on whose work Disney claimed to rely as the foundational source. Instead, Disney pre-screened the movie to conservative bloggers and pundits. Unsurprisingly, Disney’s hand-picked conservative audience loved “The Road to 9/11.” They not only produced a storm of positive chatter, they produced an army of defenders primed to use the now standard tactics of invective, hair splitting, name calling, moral equivalency when those portrayed negatively in the miniseries loudly protested that “The Road to 9/11” was full of baloney.

Those with a bit of memory will recognize how Mel Gibson pioneered this highly-succesful approach for “The Passion of the Christ.” Good old Mel, who swore up and down that he did not have an antisemetic bone in his body, was shocked and offended when the Anti-Defamation League expressed concern that “Passion” might stir up antisemetic feelings (a thousand years of Passion Plays triggering antisemetic riots and pogroms makes us a little sensitive. I know, I know “get over it”). Rather than dignify these outrageous suspicions by actually letting sme Jews screen the film, Mel showed it to Catholics and Evangelicals so that they could explain to the Jews that even suspecting Mel of antisemitism or that “Passion” might stir up antiJewish feelings was irrational and mean-spirited so there! The publicity helped promote the film, prompting millions to “defend” the film by seeing it (and buying nifty “Passion of the Christ merchandise! Remember, just wearing a standard cross or crucifix does not show your support for Mel’s movie. Only wearing an official, licensed Passion Nail(tm) shows you refute the evil lies of those nefarious Jews who malign Mel by claiming the movie and Mel are antisemetic!)

Well, Mama Disney didn’t raise no dummies when it comes to exploiting religious fanaticism and hatred! What Mel could do with some dinky independent production company, Disney could certainly top. So Disney did not even wait for Bill Clinton and Sandy Berger to find out they were portrayed as cowardly wusses who refused to give permission for a hit man to pull the trigger on Bin Laden and hotly denied it. They screened the movie for Rush Limbaugh and his buddies so they could proactively spread what conservative Clinton critic Richard Miniter called an ”internet myth“ with no basis in reality as gospel truth. And, by getting the assertion that it’s true out there first it makes the subsequent denial look pathetic against a storm of conservative blog and talk radio assertions that it is true.

See, now that is well strategized, sophisticated sleaze. Take that Mel, you piker! See why megacorps have you puny independents squashed like little bugs? With the conservative blogosphere and talk radio now utterly invested in ”the Road to 9/11,“ you can bet that every ditto head and his brother will be glued to their television sets next Sunday and Monday to cheer ABC for its courageous decision to stand up to the evil Liberal establishment and tell America the T-RUTH. Meanwhile, millions of thers will tune in just to find out what all the fuss was about. And, of course, the show and the controversy help energize the conservative base (which really needs some energizing if they are going to go to the polls) and push the public back to distrusting the Dems on national security (which the polls show has shifted from being a ”safe“ Republican issue to one where the majority of Americans now think the Dems would do a better job). Talk about a win-win for Disney! Boost your ratings AND keep a more sympatetic Congress for your corporate needs (and ingratiate yourself with the President and the Executive Branch as well).

For their manipulation of the 9/11 Commission Report to disguise partisan hackery as neutral historical research, for their cynical strategy of pre-screening to conservative supporters to boost ratings and confuse the audience about the real history, for the cynical exploitation of our national tragedy for financial ad political gain, I hereby award the folks at Disney/ABC the first ever Tales of the Sausage Factory ”Sleaze Whiz” Award.

Alas, I fear it will not be the last.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold,

    Sleaze Whiz indeed.

    I have heard Michael Moore’s detractors claim that he is dishonest, that he takes things out of context. For example, in Farenheight 911 he shows a soldier who was horribly maimed (I think it was in Iraq but I’m not sure), and some of the soldier’s comments might be taken as an indictment of Bush/the war. The soldier in question, who supports the war and Bush, filed a lawsuit alledging that he was misrepresented. But the film is not doctored, the soldier is not invented, and whether the soldier in question thinks the war is a good thing is not really material to the point the film is making. To the extent the soldier feels misrepresented, I sympathize with him. But he wasn’t there on his own. He was in the uniform of the United States of America, and I, and my fellow citizens in whose name he was sent into harm’s way, have a right to form our own opinions on whether his sacrifices were appropriate or “worth it.” I am not aware of any wholesale fabrications in Moore’s films, although I do agree he can use boderline-sleazy techniques.

    Now consider the Swift Boaters. They alledged, with no evidence, that Kerry had shot himself and fabricated evidence for his bronze and silver stars. These allegations are either true or false. If they are false, and I really don’t see how any reasonable person can conclude otherwise, then the SwiftBoaters are guilty of lies and libel. In other words, unlike Moore who simply showed things that could possibly be interpreted incorrectly,the Swiftboat liars made shit up. Why Kerry refused to call them on this is one of the great mysteries of the last election.

    Now we have the ABC people going one step further than the SwiftBoaters. Not only are they making shit up, they’re dramatizing it, disguising their biases under the guise of neutrality, and as you point out, using a very clever marketing strategy to promote their lies and blunt the defense of the people they’re slandering.

    Question: can you give a legal opinion as to whether Clinton, Berger, Albright, et al, can sue for libel? I understand that public figures have few rights in this regard than regular joes, but even movie stars have successfully sued when papers printed things about them that were outright falsehoods.

    I don’t watch TV, as a general rule, so my threatening to boycott ABC would be silly. But I will pay close attention to the sponsors. One of them, evidently, is the maker of the drug lipitor, which I take to control cholesterol. If they do sponsor the movie, I’ll have my doctor prescribe something else. These sleazebags must be resisted.

  2. Also, I fixed a few typos.

  3. I wouldn’t render a legal opinion on something like this. It requires a specialist. Defamation around famous people, particularly political figures, is damn hard to prove. There’s good reason for that, but we pay a price as well. I wish we could go to the English sysem of suing to establish the truth and winning a dollar award, so that people can have an opportunity to clear their names.

  4. In my opinion, it is in appropriate to present 9/11 as entertainment. In general, I don’t feel that tastelessness should be legislated or lawyered. I’ve simply crossed Disney off of my “classy operation” list.

    I feel that Rush Limbaugh and other shock jocks do cross a line when they take on an air of reporting and public service, and then turn around and justify any and all misrepresentations under the banner of “I only meant it as entertainment.” Maybe this mocumentary is the same. What is the legal or regulatory constraint? I’d love to apply the standards on non-real property ownership (e.g., trademarks) to “truth.” For example, if a viewer might reasonably be confused as whether the subject is being presented as factual, then it had better be backed up. Otherwise, the presenter is (in my moral, non-legal opinion) guilty of fraud. If the audience is reasonably likely to understand it as fiction, then anything goes. However, I don’t like definitions that require the court to guess what’s in peoples’ minds – particularly abstract generalized people. In this case, though, the people presented in the event recognize themselves and some of the events as historic, but others as not. I feel that’s a clue that the purported “entertainment” is playing at the truth, and should be regarded as fraudulent if not backed up.

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