September 11, 2006

News and entertainment

If you're still happily unaware of the controversy over ABC's mockumentary The Path to 9/11, you haven't been reading the newspapers or the political blogs, and you haven't been listening to talk radio or watching the news on TV. ABC and its corporate parent Disney have been getting hammered from the left for making stuff up that's unflattering to Democrats, and hammered from the right for re-editing the show in response to the complaints.

Political allegiance aside, journalists in general are taking the opportunity to sneer at the entertainment industry for its lack of commitment to actual facts and factual quotes. A Houston Chronicle editorial ("Fabricating history", 9/7/2006) says that "It's unfortunate that ABC would trust the depiction of a still painful and politically volatile subject such as 9/11 to a writer best known for fantastical storytelling". (The writer is Cyrus Nowrasteh, no stranger to docudrama controversy, and a sort of libertarian-conservative counterpart to Michael Moore). In the LA Times, Tim Rutten ascribed to network television executives "the sort of ad hoc ethics that would make a streetwalker blush" ("ABC follows a path to shame", 9/9/2006) and asked

... did the people who run ABC Entertainment ... really believe that Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger would watch themselves on television doing and saying thing they never did or said and not object? ... Did they really expect anyone to accept the preposterous notion that — as some at the network argued this week — the film's facts were wrong, but its "essence" was true? These people really need to get out more.

Like, they could do lunch with the folks who used to run CBS News.

My take on The Path to 9/11 is that it's at the bottom of a slippery slope that many of today's journalists have been skiing happily down for some time. They often think they know what the story is, or at least what it should be, before looking at any facts. For them, the role of the real world is to provide the illustrations that will help them tell their story.

I'm most sensitive to the linguistic aspect of this: every newspaper and every broadcast news outlet, every day, is full of the results of leading questions, answers presented out of context, misleadingly selective or just plain careless quotations, and other devices used to present the writer's point of view through what seem to be newsmakers' words. But it appears that staged and even faked photos are increasingly common. When "ABC defended its $40 million production as a dramatization, not a documentary, that presented the essence of events despite fictionalized elements added for narrative purposes", were they doing anything different in principle from what (nearly) all the world's news organizations were doing when they published those posed pictures of children's toys amid the rubble in Lebanon, or the apparently faked pictures of a bombed ambulance?

Some earlier language log posts on related issues:

"Typography, truth and politics" 9/15/2004
"What did Rasheed say?" 6/23/2005
"Ipsissima vox Rasheedi" 6/24/2006
"Ritual questions, ritual answers" 6/25/2005
"Bringing journalism into the 21st century" 6/30/2005
"Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed" 7/9/2005
"Down with journalists!"
"'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more" 7/30/2005
"This time it matters" 8/13/2005
"'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times" 8/27/2005
"Ritual interviews" 9/18/2005

And then there's the decision of one of the world's great news organizations to treat its science reporting as a source of comic relief: see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section".

[Update -- Victor Steinbok points out that I've over-simplified the political reaction to ABC's docudrama:

Although this does not affect the substance of your post on the ABC mock-u-drama (the "X-a-drama" alone should have generated a linguistic thread!), your initial paragraph is a bit off. A number of prominent conservatives have sided WITH the Clinton people, including Pat Buchanan, who unconditionally called for ABC to pull the series, and Bill Bennett. In addition, although it's hard to pin him as a straight conservative, Chris Wallace, a part-time anchor for FoxNews, also came out against ABC. As Stephanie Miller remarked this morning, he might have had his own issues with film-makers portraying historical facts inaccurately.

But, as I said, your larger point is on the money.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 11, 2006 08:06 AM