Guest Column

IN THE 10 DAYS since it aired, the furor over ABC’s “The Path to 9/11″ has died down, but the big mystery is just how the network let a prestige project metastasize into a blogosphere cause in the first place.

Controversy sells, but not when sponsors don’t advertise and integrity is cast in doubt. The network earned respectable ratings, but was left on the defensive, to the point where it is hard to know what it got in return.

What ABC hoped would be the next “The Day After,” its three-hour movie about an atomic bomb that aired in 1983, instead became a project whose veracity was called into question, just as CBS found with “The Reagans,” or James Frey did with “A Million Little Pieces.”

Frustrated that bloggers and journalists had concluded that he was a “conservative hatchetman” eager to rewrite history, “Path to 9/11″ writer Cyrus Nowrasteh on Monday wrote a stinging rebuke in the Wall Street Journal’s right-leaning editorial pages and even compared some of the attacks on director David Cunningham to McCarthyism.

Nowrasteh does have a point. Held up as a proof of his bias was a “friendship” with Rush Limbaugh. Nowrasteh says it was limited to two social encounters. Either way, it is merely guilt by association. His Iranian lineage should have nothing to do with whether he can write an objective treatment. He’s described himself as a libertarian, not a conservative, but his political leanings shouldn’t disqualify him from such an assignment. Oliver Stone proved that even a left-leaning director with a penchant for government conspiracy could come up with the patriotic “World Trade Center.”

But as Clinton administration veterans expressed their dismay over “Path to 9/11,” Nowrasteh did not help his case. He gave interviews to conservative blogs and talkradio hosts and even to KABC firebrand Al Rantel, who falls into the Ann Coulter class of certitude.

This certainly doesn’t prove that Nowrasteh had an agenda, but it was not a good strategy for someone who is trying to remain neutral.

IN TREADING into such sensitive territory as 9/11, appearances matter, whether it is in promotion or in production.

When it released its report in 2004, the 9/11 Commission was glorified as a model of bipartisanship. Every effort was made to ensure that the integrity of the panel did not come into question, and by and large that year, it did not.

“Path to 9/11″ expanded into a project that used not just the report as source material, but other sources as well. That is where it ran into problems, as the show turned to the standard TV movie device of fictional dialogue and composite characters.

ABC wanted the 9/11 Commission’s stamp of approval, but it also wanted compelling television. It ran a disclaimer that this was “not a documentary,” yet the entire reason people were lured to the project was that it was about something that really happened.

As much as the network claimed that its use of dramatic license didn’t change the spirit of the events, ABC couldn’t excape the appearance that other motives were at work. As producers, writers and directors have discovered, dramatic license works when it is “Behind the Scenes: The Unauthorized Story of Diff’rent Strokes” but can create uproar when it is deployed on anything slightly more serious.

Frey learned this. He and his publisher wanted his memoir in the nonfiction section because it sells better, but they also wanted a memoir of amazing stories. CBS found that to put words in the mouth of the Gipper in “The Reagans” was to invite extra inspection.

ABC COULD HAVE gone another route. In a different era, when Watergate was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and the atmosphere was far less partisan, ABC kicked off its 1977 fall season with a splashy miniseries called “Washington: Behind Closed Doors.” It was an attempt to capture the zeitgeist and cash in on the success of “All the President’s Men.” But back then, the network knew that it could not use real-life figures if it was to make it truly steamy and stimulating. So Jason Robards played not Richard Nixon but Richard Monckton. It certainly didn’t grab the same attention as a nonfiction project, but the network didn’t have to run a disclaimer, and viewers knew what it was.

“Path to 9/11″ was hardly a hatchet job on Clinton, as it set its critical eye on Bush as well. As Nowrasteh contended in his editorial, “Those who watched the entire miniseries know that he was given no special treatment.”

Where he and the network tripped up was in underestmating the scrunity, at a time when every movie, book, magazine article and news report gets dissected for factual innacuracy. And in that regard, perhaps “Path to 9/11″ needed more special treatment.

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