Monday, September 11, 2006

Holleran's world, where criticizing lies and defamation is "fascism"

Box Office Mojo is one of the web's more useful film sites, for those folks who are really interested in daily box office receipts down to the dollar, and for charts detailing the performances of various films and entire genres over the past several years.

But BOM has a blemish, and it takes the form of critic and columnist Scott Holleran.

There are two things that can severely damage the credibility of any critic of the arts. One of these is the inability to separate art from personal ideology. This does not mean that if, for instance, a critic sees a film whose politics he considers unsound, he has no business making those points in his critique. What it means is that when a critic allows his own ideological views (whether political, religious, philosophical, what have you) to give him a distorted idea about what's really going on or not going on in the work of art he's critiquing, then his credibility suffers. It's something, admittedly, that one must work on, but it's important if you like to think of yourself as someone who considers fidelity to truth more important than whose banner you happen to be waving. For example, I consider myself a good liberal, but I just don't trust the work of Michael Moore; he raises excellent questions, but he makes you wade through lots of bullshit to get there. So while I fall on Moore's side of the political fence, I don't allow that to blind me to where his films fail his audience.

The second thing is the use of hyperbole. Holleran's bad about this. You'll see what I mean shortly.

The column that inspired this post is one responding to the firestorm of criticism that was leveled against Disney and ABC for their two-part film The Path to 9/11, broadcast yesterday and today. Just as the movie itself is full of falsehoods, so is Holleran's attack on its critics. Holleran, never a guy to bury his lead, throws his first hyperbolic punch in his opening paragraph.

Free speech be damned, U.S. government officials proclaimed in a letter threatening the Walt Disney Company: take your movie off the market or risk the wrath of the state. That is the gist of the latest assault on individual rights, another advancement toward fascism.

Cripes! What Orwellian imagery, right off the bat! Here come the jackbooted government stormtroopers to shut down those poor filmmakers and TV executives who only want to exercise their Constitutional rights! Clearly, swastikas and thought police are just around the corner. Is no one safe from their depradations? Why, why do they hate our freedoms so?

Okay, let's take a brief return trip to the planet Earth and examine just how badly Holleran is distorting already.

The movie has been castigated for passing off falsehoods as facts. Holleran soft-pedals this as follows.

Like most docudramas, it contains elements of truth and fiction in a selective depiction of the event. Apparently, among these is the assertion that the Clinton administration chose not to respond militarily against the Islamic terrorist responsible for attacks on the United States. The manner in which the point is portrayed caused the censorship.

The term "selective depiction of the event" is Holleran's euphemism for what could be more accurately termed "irresponsible inclusion of flat-out lies and misrepresentations." Among the non-truths dramatically portrayed in the film are scenes in which:

  • hijacker Mohammed Atta is passed through check-in by American Airlines personnel at Boston's Logan Airport, despite a warning flashing on their computer monitors. According to the 9/11 Commission report, this warning came while Atta was boarding a plane in Portland, Maine, to Logan. Also, it's the wrong airline. Atta flew US Airways Express, not American. The scene as depicted strongly suggests that negligence on the part of American Airlines makes them partly culpable for the attacks. If I were running American's legal department I'd be filing this morning.

  • Clinton administration officials refuse to authorize the CIA to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Sandy Berger is specifically portrayed as being the individual at fault, when in fact he simply did not do what the scene shows him doing. Again, the scene is quite possibly actionable libel.

Okay, there are more, but this isn't a political blog and I just wanted to set out a couple of the more egregious examples of the falsehoods in the film that have drawn such criticism.

Holleran first lie is one of implication. His opening paragraph suggests that critics of the film in government (whom he later unambiguously identified as Democrats, just so there's no mistake which side of the bread he has buttered) have specifically threatened some kind of retaliation ("the wrath of the state") if ABC did not pull the movie. This is quite simply a lie. The strongest critics of the movie (the ones who are actually, you know, defamed in it) have stated quite forcefully that they believe the movie should be pulled unless its inaccuracies are corrected. But from what fevered fantasy does Holleran get his threats of fascistic police-state wrath? Read this and see if you can tell me where any Democrat speaks of dire consequences for ABC or Disney. From New York's Charles Schumer:

"I haven't seen it, but from everything I've heard it's not down the middle. It's not fair at all. And to have a film that seems to be biased and take one side put on by a network seems to be the wrong thing to do... You can't take a film that's supposed to report on something that's so real and so close and make it into fiction. That's beneath ABC's dignity."

Hmm, well, maybe CNN is part of the librul media, so perhaps they just left out the bit where Schumer added, "And if you don't cancel the show right away, we'll throw the whole goddamn bunch of you into Gitmo! See how you like that, suckers!"

Another distortion of Holleran's is to suggest that only hyper-partisan fascist brownshirt Democrats are the ones attacking the movie. In point of fact, prominent conservatives like Richard Miniter and Bill Bennett (yes, Bill Bennett) have been critical as well. Miniter, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer (himself no friend to the left), said quite unambiguously, "If people wanted to be critical of the Clinton years, there's things they could have said, but the idea that someone had [Osama] bin Laden in his sights in 1998 or any other time and the -- Sandy Berger refused to pull the trigger, there's zero factual basis for that."

Even actor Harvey Keitel, who plays the doomed John O'Neill, was so skeptical of the original script that he ended up hiring his own researcher, which led to his rewriting a lot of his own dialogue.

So clearly, the problem with this movie is that it lies. It lies through its teeth about the most profound event in American history since the Civil War, an event about which Americans deserve and are owed nothing less than the absolute, unvarnished, verifiable truth. This last is a point Holleran doesn't seem to feel is all that important, though. "None of that matters now," he writes. Listen to this over-the-top eruption of emotionalism he follows with.

...the movie is under siege and every freedom-loving American must defend Disney's right to air it. By sending the letter, these government officials — who ought to be censured and removed from the Senate — are using the authority of the state, i.e., the power of law enforcement, to violate free speech.

Again, just so there's no mistaking: Holleran is lying. No one has threatened the use of law enforcement against either ABC or Disney.

What they have done is demand the film be factually corrected or cancelled, which — and this is just one of many instances of irony that comes up reading Holleran's nonsense — is exactly the response Republicans had in 2003 to a miniseries entitled The Reagans, which they attacked for, you guessed it, factual inaccuracies. But all they have done is make the demand, because, legally and Constitutionally, they can't do anything more than that. As ABC has been able to go ahead and broadcast the show anyway, they have clearly not been censored. So the little graphic there with the word "CENSORED" melodramatically plastered across the ABC logo is just another teensy-weensy lie. Tsk tsk tsk.

(Also, don't you love the ironic little hypocritical touch where Holleran accuses Democratic senators of "fascism" for wanting ABC to fix-or-pull the movie, then promptly says they should be "censured and removed" from office? I sure do!)

In Holleran's world, what's good for the Republican gander is not so good for the Democratic goose. I tried searching BOM's archives for a column by Holleran regarding the flap over The Reagans (which, incidentally, was pulled before broadcast due to the criticisms, only to air later in a lousy time slot on Showtime). I wanted to see if he felt Republicans criticizing The Reagans were a bunch of "state-sanctioned bullies," "fascist senators" and "Washington's thugs," engaging in "an outrageous injustice" involving"censorship" and "government control of speech." I couldn't find one, but that could be because of BOM's search engine protocols. For all I know Holleran wrote exactly such an article excoriating Republicans in exactly the same vituperative language he uses to flay the Democrats.

But somehow, I doubt it.

Finally, one last punch to get in before I go. Notice how Holleran is trying to make this a free speech issue. This is clearly the most disingenuous aspect of his entire rant. Yes, free speech is "inalienable"; that's perhaps the one factual statement Holleran makes. But it cuts both ways. You may have the right to be a lying partisan hack, but the person who attacks you for your lies and points out the facts has the same free speech rights too. The "freedom" to be deceptive and irresponsible does not absolve one of the moral responsibility to be honest, particularly when your lies have potentially harmful consequences. There are already enough wacky conspiracy theories and other gibberish circulating about 9/11; does our culture benefit in any way by being offered yet another set of untruths, packaged as entertainment and seemingly validated by their appearance on a presumably respectable television network?

And finally, "free speech" is not an absolute, despite its first-amendment enshrinement. Lie under oath in the witness box, and you can go up on perjury charges; whining "but you're attacking my free speech!" will get you nowhere. Pin up a bunch of posters around your neighborhood falsely accusing your neighbor of being a pedophile, and expect to get sued into oblivion. (And quite possibly hospitalized.)

Moreover, it may be your Constitutionally protected right to speak your mind, but no one has a Constitutionally protected right to broadcast TV movies. That is understood as a privilege, by the very nature of the fact that not everyone can do it or is able to do it. In America we expect people in positions of authority and privilege to be responsible and honest, to be straight shooters, whether they are newspaper editors or popular celebrities or influential senators or police officers or presidents or, hell, even our bosses at work. And when they are not, which happens all too often, we resent it, it makes us angry, and we speak out about it.

That's what's at the heart of everything we hold dear about America, including, yes, our speech rights and all the rest of it. It's a shame Scott Holleran doesn't feel that responsibility and honesty are necessary, as long as those whose politics he doesn't like are the ones taking the damage.

1 comment:

Lowell B. said...

Very much enjoyed this entry. Holleran's poor analytical skills have annoyed me for a long time. Good to read an articulate response to him. Keep up the good work.