Truth-twisting in docudramas based on profits, not politics

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Here are five words that I never expected to put together in the same sentence: Bill Clinton owes Rush Limbaugh.

Yes, it was El Rushbo, hero of the right, who leaked word via his national radio show that the Clinton administration, target of the right, was about to be trashed in ABC's docudrama The Path to 9/11.

Actually, Mr. Limbaugh's leak was more of a gusher. Boasting that the screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a friend of his, Mr. Limbaugh said the movie "indicts the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger. It is just devastating to the Clinton administration."

Mr. Nowrasteh has described himself as a conservative. He is quoted as having called Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker Michael Moore "an out-of-control socialist weasel."

Mr. Nowrasteh also told, a conservative Web site, that his movie illustrates "the frequent opportunities the [Clinton] administration had in the '90s to stop Osama bin Laden in his tracks - but lacked the will to do so."

Based on the 9/11 commission report, the movie purports to show how both administrations missed opportunities to stop Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida agents from launching the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Democrats such as Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the commission, assailed as "complete fiction" scenes that suggested the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other issues distracted Mr. Clinton from anti-terrorism concerns.


Putting politics aside for the moment, sure, it's unfair. When it comes to historical accuracy, Hollywood isn't fair. Many a factual sequence in a reputedly historical movie has been doctored up to give it more zing on the screen.

With that in mind, ABC's movie probably is no less fair than Oliver Stone's mingling of fiction with fact in JFK, which subtly suggests that President Lyndon B. Johnson might have had something to do with John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Or how about the CBS miniseries The Reagans, about President Ronald Reagan and his family? After conservatives strongly protested the movie's accuracy, CBS canceled its scheduled broadcast in November 2003. Showtime, the cable channel, broadcast it later that month.

Which brings to mind Mr. Nowrasteh's own 2001 Showtime movie, The Day Reagan Was Shot, which he wrote and directed. Then, it was conservative veterans of the Reagan administration who attacked his film, alleging inaccuracies. Mr. Nowrasteh even made what he described to the Los Angeles Daily News as "a conscious effort not to contact any members of the [Reagan] administration because I didn't want them to stymie my efforts."

With that, Mr. Nowrasteh illustrates what I have long held to be the entertainment industry's real bias. Sometimes it leans to the right, sometimes to the left, but always toward bringing in the most profits - even if some inconvenient facts have to be sacrificed. Do you find that troubling? Welcome to Hollywood.

I have long campaigned against historical dramas that take flagrant liberties with the facts. Weasel-worded come-ons such as "Based on actual events" should never be a license to lie. Unfortunately, they often are.

Pseudo-historical movies would not be as much of a problem if more people read more good history books. Instead, movies about history become historical memory for multitudes of viewers.

At a time when many Americans believe oddball conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks, we need to have more facts and less fiction in our pursuit of the truth. And if there's any big objective truth about the days leading up to 9/11, it is how complacent Americans were on both sides of the political fence.

On 9/11, our sense of security was ripped away. We are a more alert nation now. We study the past with different eyes, because we care about our future.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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