A question of journalistic ethics

A letter to Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company, about the coming mockumentary about the run-up to 9/11.

ThinkProgress has a quite damning response from Richard Clarke to the ABC movie’s accusation that Clinton refused a chance to kill bin Laden.

1. Contrary to the movie, no US military or CIA personnel were on the ground in Afghanistan and saw bin Laden.

2. Contrary to the movie, the head of the Northern Alliance, Masood, was no where near the alleged bin Laden camp and did not see UBL.

3. Contrary to the movie, the CIA Director actually said that he could not recommend a strike on the camp because the information was single sourced and we would have no way to know if bin Laden was in the target area by the time a cruise missile hit it.

ThinkProgress is running an email campaign directed at Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, which is ABC’s parent company. The site has a canned message, but allows you to edit to taste.

Here’s the one I sent:

Mr. Robert Iger

President and Chief Executive Officer

The Walt Disney Company

Dear Mr. Iger:

A question of journalistic ethics: Is it appropriate for a major network to air a purported documentary on an incendiary topic which invents facts and incidents?

If so, then there can be no objection to ABC’s plan to broadcast “The Path to 9/11.” But if not — if a network documentary ought to be held to journalistic standards of accuracy — then broadcasting that film would represent a major ethical violation.

I suggest that you consult with ABC’s own counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, about the movie’s falsification of the historical record.

If you have any justification to offer for broadcasting that film during the run-up to a national election, I would be interested in hearing it.

Disney has a proud history of providing brilliant fantasy entertainment. ABC News has an equally proud history of providing factual accounts of actual events. Those two traditions need to be kept separate. Mixing fantasy into the news serves no good purpose.

Very truly yours,

My experience on the Hill a million years ago suggests to me that messages sent in mass campaigns are heavily discounted, especially if they all use the same language. So be creative.

In addition, there’s probably some value in sending a message directly to Iger rather than going through ThinkProgress. Messages I sent to various addresses at Disney bounced back, but not a message to:


No guarantees, but worth a try. Send your message once through ThinkProgress, and again as a personal email.

Of course there’s no need to remind the exceptionally polite and sensible readers of this site to play nice. Personal abuse, threats, and four-letter words all backfire in this context.


ABC has a “viewer response” email system. You’re limited to 500 characters. Here’s my short version:

As your own counterterrorism expert, Richard Clark, has pointed out, “The Road to 9/11” grossly distorts the historical record by making events that never happened. It is obviously unethical to air such false and incendiary material, from a flagrantly partisan source, on the anniversary of the disaster. I urge you to cancel the program.

Second update It’s also worth phoning your local ABC affiliate. If they start bailing, the network will get the message fast. Phone numbers here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “A question of journalistic ethics”

  1. Thanks Mark. My email simply said: (1) see your post; and (2) me and my family will forever boycott ABC and anything related to Walt Disney (yes, I have several young nieces and nephews) if ABC runs these partisan lies. Let's see if this fellow understands the bottom line.

  2. What's really sad is that the version you see *is* the neutral, compromise version. Cyrus Nowrasteh's original draft had the phone call to the White House asking for the greenlight to kill Osama answered by… Monica Lewinsky!
    Well, no it didn't. But the movie would be funnier that way.
    I wonder if the "documentary" will include Mansoor Ijaz's heroic parlay for Sudan to hand over Osama, only to be rebuffed by the uncaring, terror-loving Bill Clinton.

  3. This is really creepy! A major network with some shreds of respectability goes totally in the smear business?! Jesus!
    I agree this is a big deal and I did some e-mails but what's even bigger is to win some freaking elections–as many as we possibly can–this year.
    Forget what the wise men say about what's likely–we've got to go for broke. Don't let your self believe that we can treat what's happening to our country as business as usual. These guys we're up against really are as bad as we say.
    I fear for the American we will be leaving to my grandchildren.
    Go to ActBlue. Give money.

  4. Make a big stink about it. Try to shut down the conversation. Don't let anyone see it.
    Those tactics usually work, don't they? I mean, they're not especially likely to backfire, are they?
    Hell, I'd never heard of this movie and had no plans to watch it until I saw how excited it made a certain class of people. Now, the whole family will tune in!

  5. Docu-drama? Oliver Stone's JFK anyone? Where is your appeal to artistic license? 🙂
    Seriously, I'm always very skeptical about historically 'grounded' dramas. I worry that people who don't know real history will get it really wrong. (See also The DaVinci Code).

  6. Thomas: "Those tactics usually work, don't they?"
    Well, "The Reagans" was bumped from CBS to Showtime because of the criticism — from Reagan disciples.

  7. For the record, Mark Kleiman's comment on "The Reagans" on November 9, 2003:
    Personally, I rather disapprove of docu-drama, because the viewer has no way to know what's documented and what isn't. But docu-drama itself is no longer controversial: "The Reagans" was cancelled not for making stuff up, but for making up stuff powerful people didn't want the voters exposed to. Scary.

  8. OK–this is what comes of being a geek who doesn't follow the news as closely as he should.
    I thought that the 9/11 Commission's key conclusion was that there were opportunities to kill bin Laden (under both Clinton and Bush) that were not taken.
    Is that untrue?
    Because if it is–it seems that "prettying up the story" of how we knew is pretty normal for a docudrama.

  9. There's a good post and thread at Michael Fromkin's blog (http://www.discourse.net/archives/2006/09/abcs_911_libel_by_fiction_exposure.html) on the possibility of a libel action by say Madeleine Albright.
    One commenter suggested bringing the action in Bermuda under British libel laws. Ingenious, but the point would be the remedy (a prime-time, broadcast grovel), which would have to be in the USA to be useful.
    Michael also suggests Senator Clinton mug up the law of copyright, for the dish best eaten cold.

  10. As the dust clears on this clear pro Republican propaganda effort by ABC/Disney two months before a decisive Congressional election, please monitor the SEC, FCC, Treasury, Justice Ant-Trust Division, Congressional committees and all the other places in the Bush government where the payoff may be delivered.

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