ABC rebuffs pressure to deep-six 9/11 mini

ABC rebuffs pressure to deep-six 9/11 mini

So the controversial ABC miniseries "The Path to 9/11" got sliced and diced but not pulled, and I'm relieved that it didn't. Whether the project was as politically partisan as advertised is far less important than broadcast freedom and the horrors of censorship.

Yes, I happen to be among those who believe -- having viewed the first cut of the nearly five-hour two-nighter -- that it was misrepresentative and skewed and outright fabricated at various points, no matter what one might want to say about "Path's" considerable dramatic merits. Those politicians who felt they were treated unfairly (among them Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger and secretary of state Madeleine Albright as well as Bill Clinton himself) had every right to voice their concerns to Disney.

But that's pretty much where their power ends. Sorry, but politicos don't have control over broadcast content. You can bitch all you want, but at the end of the day, it's tough luck. That's just the First Amendment in action.

And yet ABC almost seemed to overreact to what it must have perceived to have been a threat. It began altering and cutting down controversial scenes with frantic resolve, out of either a need to appease or some ill-defined fear. Rumors surfaced that the program was doomed to suffer the same fate as did CBS' "The Reagans" nearly three years ago when complaints from the right surfaced: The network dumped it and shuffled the mini over to Viacom sister Showtime, evidently believing it wasn't up to broadcast standards but would work just fine on pay cable.

The heat got turned up on Disney and ABC late last week when several Democratic congressional leaders, including Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, seemed to obliquely threaten -- in a letter to Disney CEO Bob Iger -- ABC's broadcast license.

"The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principal obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest," the letter read in part. "We urge you ... to uphold your responsibilities as a respectable member of American society and as a beneficiary of the free use of the public airwaves to cancel this factually inaccurate and deeply misguided program."

Sorry, lawmakers, but this is known as suppression of content and abuse of power and a reprehensible piece of business. It's just a good thing it didn't force ABC's hand or there would have been a massive political backlash from conservatives. As it is, neither side comes out with a clear-cut win: Dems are still upset about the overall piece and inaccuracies, and Republicans are angry about the fact that scenes were watered down under pressure.

When CBS bowed to pressure from right-wing watchdog groups and shunted "The Reagans" over to Showtime in November 2003, it was a dark day for creative expression on the airwaves. CBS denied it was intimidated into the move, but of course it was the political coercion that clearly pushed things forward.

In that case, and in the case of "Path to 9/11," the only correct move should be in allowing a project to air and let viewers judge for themselves. No special interest, whether we be talking extremist wackos or political operatives, should ever have the clout to kill a television program. If it's unacceptable, the public will vote with its remote. But if you force unilateral decisions based on personal ethics or morality, you are no longer merely someone with an opinion but a programmer.

Forget the political firestorm. "The Path to 9/11" deserved to air, and I'd have even preferred that it run minus the last-minute edits performed at the end of a shotgun. Perhaps we require regular reminders: This country isn't in the censorship business.