I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, September 08, 2006

NSA story v. 9/11 film -- the "Liberal MSM" strikes again

(updated below)

The reason why there is so much intense objection over ABC's 9/11 propaganda film isn't merely because it inexcusably relies on total fictions in order to assign blame for 9/11 -- although that would be cause enough for protests. Well beyond its fabrications, what makes it so inexcusable is the timing of the film -- two months before a critical election -- along with the fact that it is tailor-made for advancing the Republicans' central electoral strategy of hyping the terrorist threat and blaming Democrats for failing to confront that threat.

Path to 9/11 is basically one big five-hour, prime-time Republican propaganda political commercial on the most important political dispute our country faces, masquerading as a film by ABC, which is broadcasting it for free. It is its intended impact on the imminent election which is what makes Disney/ABC's conduct so uniquely appalling here.

Contrast Disney's conduct with what The New York Times did with regard to the NSA warrantless eavesdropping story prior to the 2004 presidential election. When the Times first published the story on December 16, 2005, it admitted that it sat on the story for some time, but misled its readers -- as its own Public Editor, Byron Calame, recently noted -- by claiming that it "delayed publication for a year," meaning beginning in December, 2005, after the election. But it was then later acknowledged by Bill Keller -- accidentally, during an online chat with readers -- that the Times actually had the story in final draft form ready to go in late October/early November, 2004 -- prior to the election.

After giving all sorts of shifting and contradictory reasons as to why the Times held the story, Keller finally admitted in an interview with Calme that part of the reason for holding the story was a fear of unfairly influencing the election. As Calme reported:

Holding a fresh draft of the story just days before the election also was an issue of fairness, Mr. Keller said.

We're not talking here about a fictionalized film, but one of the most important journalistic stories of the last decade -- and the Times held it, in part, out of fear of unfairly influencing the election. If anything, the Times ought to have rushed to find a way to publish the story before the election precisely to avoid a situation where voters were electing a President without knowing that the President was violating the law by eavesdropping on them without warrants (and they could then decide that they approved of that program as a necessary counter-terrorism measure or disapproved as a lawless act). But they withheld it until after the election.

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.

As Atrios noted yesterday, Disney seemed to recognize exactly that mandate before when it refused to distribute Farenheit 9/11, at great financial cost to it and its shareholders. As CNN reported then:

One executive told the paper it did not want to be seen taking sides in the election and risk alienating customers of different political views.

"It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle," said the executive, who was not identified by the paper.

When it came to Michael Moore's film (which reflected poorly on Bush), why did ABC adopt the same reasoning the NYT did with regard to the NSA story (which reflected poorly on Bush) -- namely, that it wanted to avoid influencing elections and taking sides in political disputes -- only to now act in complete contradiction to that goal by broadcasting, for free, propaganda that could have been easily produced by the RNC and which fits in perfectly with the Bush political strategy for this election?

All corporations instinctively try to avoid political controversy and to avoid unduly influencing elections. The NYT even went so far as to withhold one of the most significant journalistic discoveries of the Bush presidency -- for which it ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize -- on the ground that it wanted to avoid unfair influence on the election.

Yet here, Disney/ABC seems not just willing, but bizarrely eager, to violate all of those principles, sacrifice its own corporate interests, spend huge amounts of its own resources, and take sides in an intense political controversy -- not just with the effect, but with the intent, to influence this election. If that's not the case, why won't Disney/ABC do what the NYT did under much less justifiable circumstances -- broadcast this film after the November election?

UPDATE: As several people noted quite quickly in Comments, I was unclear with this sentence -- "All corporations instinctively try to avoid political controversy and to avoid unduly influencing elections. " Obviously, corporations try to help candidates get elected who will advance their corporate agenda and/or as a means of securing influence, but they typically try to avoid publicly taking sides in a political controversy in a way that will alienate their customers. This is a divided country politically and large national corporations do not want to be perceived as being on one side or the other lest they alienate a huge part of their customer base.

UPDATE II: You can find action steps for keeping up the pressure on Disney/ABC here, along with Disney e-mail addresses here.

UPDATE III: Matt Stoller has written what is, in my view, the definitive explanation of what likely happened here regarding Disney and the dangers to it from its conduct.

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