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Sunday, 10 September 2006 13:30

Danny Schechter: Disney: Love Us or Hate Us -- Just Watch Us; Behind the Selling of a "Crockumentary"

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by Danny Schechter, Mediachannel.org

The last time a docudrama triggered a such a sh*t storm was not that long ago, when CBS was offering a a fictionalized dramatization of the live and loves of Ronald Reagan. That was back in November 2003. Right wing organizations went ballistic with websites like insultspunished.com blasting it as biased and an unacceptable attack on a living President. Other outlets compared it to a media assassination.

Remember what happened then? CBS first defended it as accurate but then as the heat grew, yanked the whole series, no ifs and buts, and put it on Showtime, another Viacom-owned outlet.

Contrast that reaction with ABC's response to criticisms of its two-night prime time Path to 911 "fact-based" movies that came under fire from Democrats, 911 truth activists and media reformers.

At first, ABC played cagey, claiming that the program was accurate.

The program was covered initially as if it was a real documentary, with ABC claiming it's editing has not been finished yet. Then, advance excerpts were sent to right wing bloggers who loved it. (There was no response from Disney when Mediachannel.org, the site I edit, requested a coyp). The critics were, as usual, marginalized.

When those "Big Cahunas" Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright denounced their portrayal, the challenge to the Disneyfication of 911 suddenly turned into a major issue and Disney's Mouse House went from outright denial into a full scale carefully massaged PR defense (Disney's chief PR maven has earlier been a flack operative for Republican Governor George Pataki).

Disney anticipated some of this criticism by "deploying" a "partnership" with Scholastic magazines to have a program widely characterized as a "crockumentary" legitimated through distribution to classrooms. That is being done by using the controversy as a selling point and turning a liability into an asset.

Scholastic President Richard Robinson presents it all as a clash of equally valid viewpoints as if there are no objective facts, only interpretations in a letter posted on the educational publisher's website:

"Our mission is well-captured in our credo and editorial platform which includes the statement: 'Good citizens may honestly differ on important public questions. We believe that all sides of the issues of our times should be fairly discussed-with deep respect for facts and logical thinking-in classroom magazines, books and other educational materials used in schools and homes.'... 'In that context, because the ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11 will be watched by many people in the U.S., including some of your students, we believe we should provide you with teaching ideas and background information on this series which will provide a 'teachable moment' for an important issue of our time."

But there is another context here that neither Disney mentions or Scholastic fully acknowledges; the political agenda behind the program and its timing. Even as tens of thousands of viewers flood Disney with letters of disgust, the media context as put forth by Tim Karrr of Free Press. "These media protests have had an impact, but the root problem will remain unless we act now to stop media giants from becoming even more powerful.

"Rampant media consolidation over the last two decades has put control over the media in the hands of a few large corporations. We see it in action now.

"Local stations have been instructed by ABC -- and its corporate owners at Disney -- to air "The Path to 9/11" a five-hour "docudrama" that is riddled with falsehoods ... Media ownership matters. It is time to rollback rampant media consolidation and defend localism and public service."

The political dimensions of conflict have received more exposure especially by bloggers and GOP critics. Daily Kos fleshed out what Hollywood calls "the back story," when it comes to the stories they do, not the story behind it. One posted explained, "'The Path to 9/11' is produced and promoted by a well-honed propaganda operation consisting of a network of little-known right-wingers working from within Hollywood to counter its supposedly liberal bias.

"This is the network within the ABC network. Its godfather is far right activist David Horowitz, who has worked for more than a decade to establish a right-wing presence in Hollywood and to discredit mainstream film and TV production. On this project, he is working with a secretive evangelical religious right group founded by The Path to 9/11's director David Cunningham that proclaims its goal to 'transform Hollywood' in line with its messianic vision."

The political agenda is what troubles writer Glenn Greenwald: "It is its intended impact on the imminent election which is what makes Disney/ABC's conduct so uniquely appalling here....

"What possible justification, then, exists for ABC to broadcast this mini-series now, as opposed to, say, three months from now? Jane Hamsher and others have suggested that delaying the 9/11 broadcast until after the election would be a fair compromise -- it would allow ABC to broadcast this propaganda if it really wants to while avoiding undue influence on a major national election by injecting into it a bunch of fictionalized propaganda manufactured on behalf of its entertainment division and one of the two political parties contesting the election.

"Major networks are trustees of the public airways, and the last thing they ought to be doing is trying to sway imminent elections by taking sides -- via a work of admitted fiction -- in the most critically important political disputes our country has."

Disney is the company which publicly at least refused to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (while quietly profiting from it later, and also releasing a patriotic documentary which just as quietly fizzled.)

This issue is not just about partisan politics, but ideology-shaping worldviews and positioning ideas in a conservative framework.

Significantly, many conservatives are unhappy with the distortions in the film even as they see far less of a problem of distortions of news on their "fair and balanced" network. John Podhoretz, the conservative columnist and Fox News contributor found "The portrait of Albright an unacceptable revision of recent events?" Bill Bennett the conservative author admits, "The Path to 9/11 is strewn with a lot of problems." Right wing analyst Brent Bozell says, "CUT: 'I think that if you have a scene, or two scenes, or three scenes, important scenes, that do not have any bearing on reality and you can edit them.'" Even Bill O'Neil is bothered; "it puts words in the mouth of real people, actors playing real people that they didn't say and it's wrong."

Ironically, this outpouring of trash talk on the right just gives Disney ABC a new argument to deflate any suggestion of partisan intent. Just as Rupert Murdoch's publications urged readers "to judge for themselves" when they published the forged Hitler Diaries, Disney realizes that "controversy sells," as in "if everyone hates it, it can't be that bad."


News Dissector Danny Schechter spent eight years working for ABC News. He now edits Mediachannel.org. Info on his latest film at InDebtWeTrust.com. Comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.