Do Senate Democrats' calls for ABC to cancel or edit its docudrama The Path to 9/11 constitute censorship?
The network has responded to criticism from Democrats, including some elected representatives and former Clinton administration officials, by editing disputed scenes in the film, and by adding a disclaimer that what was originally billed as "based on the 9/11 Commission Report" is more accurately a "docudrama" with significant embellishments. Even so, the five-hour film, which concludes tonight (interrupted only by a 20-minute address from the President), is meeting with outrage from those who argue it diverges from the Commission's report in a clear pattern of partisan bias, whose aim is to promote Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. Democrats protest that the film exaggerates (or invents) scenes that illustrate Clinton-era failings that may have led to 9/11, and that things like provacy and judicial oversight hinder the hunt for terrorists. Republicans, meanwhile, are promoting the film, while accusing Democrats of censorship.
Is It Censorship?
The conflict over The Path to 9/11 reached fever pitch on September 7th, when Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to Disney (ABC's parent company) CEO Robert Iger, urging him to consider the following:
The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principle obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest. Nowhere is this public interest obligation more apparent than in the duty of broadcasters to serve the civic needs of a democracy by promoting an open and accurate discussion of political ideas and events.
Some have called this argument a veiled threat to revoke the network's broadcast license. More likely, however, these protests (and accusations from former members of the Clinton cabinet, who claim their statements or actions are misrepresented), are well within their own First Amendment rights, speaking as citizens. If there is a threat implicit in these words, it is more likely one of private litigation (for defamation, perhaps) than one of initiating government action to punish or silence one's critics (the textbook definition of censorship). After all, since the Democrats are the minority in Congress, they don't even necessarily wield the clout to undertake such actions.
This is What Democracy Sounds Like
Some of the controversy is really just proof of a healthy democracy: petitions, op-eds, and letters from citizens concerned about a broadcast network's responsibility to the truth — and an overarching responsibility to honor the lives of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks by not exploiting the tragedy for political gain. Though conservative commentators on talk radio and on right-wing blogs point fingers at the Democrats' efforts to pressure ABC, it's worth pointing out that if anything, they are borrowing a page from the Republican party's playbook.