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The Lesson of '9/11'

Television that takes chances always gets our attention and applause; the medium is bolder and better than ever. But criticism of ABC's controversial two-part movie The Path to 9/11, which began airing on the night of the fifth anniversary of the terror act, deserves the attention of TV filmmakers, executives and viewers.

To suggest that former or current White House officials lacked the spine or intelligence to thwart the attacks is a serious charge. But docudramas, virtually by definition, create scenes and dialogue that didn't happen as they are depicted—if at all. Re-creating an event as horrific as 9/11 and what led to it demanded a special level of scrutiny by ABC.

Gov. Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission and a senior consultant on the film, underscored the importance of accuracy in a July 5 ABC press release: “More people will see this film than probably anything else on the subject. Telling the whole story of 9/11 will help people better understand the issues involved.”

In that same press release—in fact, in the next paragraph—ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson said, “When you take on the responsibility of telling the story behind such an important event, it is absolutely critical that you get it right.”

Yet on Foreign Policy magazine's Website after controversy erupted, scriptwriter/producer Cyrus Nowrasteh said, “I had to collapse the events of eight and a half years into five hours. I don't know any other way to do it except collapse, conflate and condense.”

ABC can't have it both ways. If it is “absolutely critical” to get it right, then a docudrama was not the way to do it, particularly when the film is depicting real people who are still alive and whose reputations can collapse when their actions are dramatically altered.

And it wasn't only Madeline Albright and Sandy Berger and other Clintonites who felt wronged. American Airlines was shown allowing Mohammed Atta to board despite a computer warning. But Atta boarded US Airways in Portland, Maine, and transferred to American in Boston. There was no computer warning there. American told ABC that; the scene still aired.

One good thing: Scholastic, the children's publishing company, quickly replaced a planned 9/11 viewing guide for teachers with one focusing on “media literacy, critical thinking and historical background.”

According to its Website, some of the first questions its new materials intended to address were these: “What are the matters of dispute in the docudrama? What are the scenes that were altered or did not happen? How do these scenes affect your understanding? Are the changes part of an effort by the producers to shape your beliefs about these events? In your view, is this an appropriate way to treat an event such as this?”

Those are the questions everybody involved with this project should have asked some time ago. The story of 9/11, told five years later, needed special treatment.