Alumni Colunm: Trumping the Truth

Garner Simmons

The truth depends, as Martin Luther once noted, “upon whose ox is being gored.” This was never more evident than ABC Television’s attempt to commemorate the fifth anniversary of September 11 by presenting, without commercial interruption, a 2-part docudrama called “The Path to 9/11.”

A week prior to airing, following a screening of Part 1 at the Washington Press Club, the film and its writer-producer Cyrus Nowrasteh were attacked by members of the Left as being part of a “Right-wing conspiracy” attempting to blame former President Clinton for the events leading up to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Going directly to Robert Iger, head of ABC’s parent company, Disney, the Democrats demanded the film be either pulled or re-edited. Although Iger refused to cancel it, the pressure was so great that he allowed some changes to be made. Unfortunately, the real victim here was the American public.

Let me state for the record that I have known Cyrus Nowrasteh for more than 20 years. We both work in the same profession and see ourselves as politically independent, though he is more right of center and I am more left. That is why we trust each other to read and critique each other’s work; honesty and candor are all that matter.

Thus I found it personally offensive when the media attempted to discredit him as “a politically conservative Iranian American Muslim.” He is, in fact, an extremely bright, thoughtful and concerned screenwriter, producer and director. A member of no organized religion, his work is always meticulously researched and brilliantly realized. This probably accounts for the fact that he was the first writer ever to win the prestigious Pen Award back-to-back for “The Day Reagan Was Shot” (2002) and “10,000 Black Men Named George” (2003).

Ironically, for his work on “The Day Reagan Was Shot” (which he also directed) he was roundly castigated by certain members of the Right for telling uncomfortable truths about the gaffs made by a GOP administration. In “10,000 Black Men Named George” he depicted the struggle, courage and sacrifice of those who risked everything to form the first African-American labor union in 1925. His Pen Award for this reads in part: “…The story alone is riveting, but the way Nowrasteh tells it… shows immense authorial skill and understanding of the human psyche…” Does this sound like the work of a conservative ideologue?

Cyrus and I both write what might be called historical fiction or “docudrama.” For those who have never done this, you need to understand that history is not drama. It simply contains the personalities, conflicts and events from which great drama may emerge. However, events that transpire over days or sometimes years cannot be recreated in real time. To be effective drama they demand compression and selection that best serves to reveal the truth and touch us in some emotional way. Sometimes several “real” people become a composite character. Sometimes a series of events must be rolled into a single telling moment. The only demand incumbent upon the writer is that such dramatic “shaping” does not compromise the truth.

Ask yourself which is more justifiable: The dramatic re-enactment of events leading to September 11 compressed for insight or effect? Or Michael Moore’s manipulation of his “documentary” footage in “Fahrenheit 911” to show a mother who has lost her son in Iraq in such a way that it appears that the young soldier is still “alive” when we first meet her so that Moore’s film can have greater emotional impact when he reveals the young man has been killed?

“The Path to 9/11” was originally to be a 3-part miniseries. Cyrus asked me to read all three scripts as he wrote them. He wanted feedback regarding the tone, content, fairness and dramatic impact. Among the things I found most striking was the enormously even-handed treatment of the events as they unfolded. With blame enough to go around for Democrats and Republicans alike, these scripts played it straight attempting to candidly tell the story in an honest and insightful way. Did Mr. Clinton make mistakes? Absolutely. But so did George Bush.

Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where politics trumps the truth. Mr. Clinton, for whom I voted twice, clearly would like to forget the Monica Lewinsky affair. I don’t blame him. So would I. However, it is part of history as are the attacks by the GOP accusing him of using his response to the al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Africa as an attempt to deflect America’s attention away from his personal problems. In truth, these accusations by the Right did America a grave disservice. Clinton’s only mistake was in not continuing to go after al Qaeda regardless of the politics. But to ask that these scenes be edited out of the miniseries is to try to pretend they never happened. And Mr. Clinton should be ashamed.

However, there is something much more profoundly troubling here. It is the chilling effect such attacks may have upon similar projects yet to be developed. Censorship by intimidation is no less vile today than it was in the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy employed it. When the press acts in the service of politics, it places America at risk. For regardless of what we as individuals may ultimately think of “The Path to 9/11” we deserve to see it and decide for ourselves.