Friday, September 08, 2006

Clinton, 9/11 and The First Amendment

True to form, the controversy over a docudrama centering on the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center buildings preceded the showing of a mini-series on the subject. Many promoters of such art products have determined that lively controversy aids in selling the product. Examples abound: When Madonna, in one of her most recent evocations, descended to a stage mounted on a mirrored cross, her brow graced with a crown of thorns, the Vatican predictably objected – creating controversy, which spiked sales, sending the producers of the lavish production chortling all the way to the bank.

A docudrama, unlike a documentary, is a re-created record of events in which actors play the part of real people. Some of the targets of the docudrama – including former President Bill Clinton – insisted that the events re-enacted must be accurate. In a letter to ABC, head of the Clinton Foundation Bruce Lindsey and Clinton lawyer Douglas Bond urged ABC not to show the film, “The Path to 9/11”, unless necessary corrections are made to a "fictitious rewriting of history that will be misinterpreted by millions of Americans." The use of legal terminology in the four page letter suggested to some critics of the critics that a suit might be in the offing if the makers of the docudrama did not make necessary adjustments in their product. "The content of this drama is factually and incontrovertibly inaccurate and ABC has the duty to fully correct all errors or pull the drama entirely," said the two censors.

Any recreation of events, even history books and scientific treatises, are subject to dispute and error. Documentaries, because they present a specific point of view on a subject, are more error prone, one supposes, than scientific papers. Some historical truth surely has seeped through the editing cracks of ''Fahrenheit 9-11,” a controversial anti-Bush documentary that won Michael Moore a prestigious Palm d’Or award. A synopsis of the film taken from the Festival de Cannes site describes it as “Michael Moore’s reflections on the current state of America, including the powerful role oil and greed may have played after the 9-11 attacks. In this provocative expose, Moore will tell the one story no one has yet dared to tell as he reveals the event that led the US into that apocalyptic September 11th moment and why the country is now at war.”

Now, it is interesting to speculate what Moore might have said had the president featured in his film demanded in a letter written by the president’s librarian and his lawyer that the artist must permit the subject of his film editing rights before the film had been released. My own guess is that Moore’s response would have been unprintable. Certainly the French who awarded Moore the Palm d’Or would have been alarmed. Artists the world over would have protested vehemently. Words such as “censorship,” “freedom of expression,” “first Amendment rights,” would have been tossed around like rhetorical grenades.

And eventually someone would have noted that even Palm d’Or winning documentaries cannot be “provocative” without telling the truth in a slanted way. “Tell the truth,” Emily Dickenson advises, “but tell it slant.” Every artist – even Madonna – views the world from his own peephole. The First Amendment opens a wide door of liberty to artists, controversialists, documentarians and docudramatists, n’est pas?

Even the Dixie Chicks. “How dare we persecute these women for their opinion simply because we do not agree with it?” a blogger wrote in high dungeon when someone suggested banning the winsome trio. And then the blogger quoted Voltaire, a Frenchman whose sentiments are as American as apple pie: “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death you’re right to say it.”

So, what was all the bother about? Why was a former president of the United States threatening to sue artists unless they altered an art product that was still in the can? And had anyone told Madonna? Did Hollywood raise an objection? Did Mrs. Clinton know what her husband was up to?

And if former President Clinton didn't like the docudrama, why couldn't he just change the channel?
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