This Johnny Space Commander mask here is a pure fantasy toy. I mean, you know, kids can have a lot of fun with a toy like this, you know? Let me show you.. [puts the plastic bag over his head, then wraps the rubber band around it] "Hello, hello, this is Johnny Space Commander. I'm in deep space, I'm gonna land the rocket now!" You see what I mean? [takes off the plastic bag] You see what I mean? It's a pure fantasy toy!
- - Dan Ackroyd's Toy Dealer "Irwin Mainway" of SNL Fame
Disney/ABC, along with Nashville affiliate WKRN, are in business. They are marketing a product in the form of this weekend's controversial "Paths to 9/11" and they are selling it on public airwaves, with a boost from 900 right-wing, pre-screened promoters. They are now taking a lot of heat from center-to-left consumers who expect that product to live up to high standards of truth rather than to generate a fantasia of falsehoods about the causes of 9/11. You use a public medium, you should live up to the public trust by remaining either impartial or balanced.
But rather than attempting to sell a responsible product responsibly, they and their supporters have battened down the hatches, lashed out at a cross-section of their audience as "premature and irresponsible", and thrown around preposterous charges of "censorship" and "prior restraint." Yet, the popular criticism ABC is now catching has nothing to do with the 1st Amendment's guarantee of speech free from government censorship. And "prior restraint" applies to government attempts to prohibit free expression, and no credible consumer is supporting that in the simple phone call to WKRN or letter written to ABC.
When the controversy began, ABC was forced to say that fantasy is exactly what they are selling here. I don't object to selling fantasy. It is what Disney does best.
But I have a couple of qualms. Why did it take a full-blown controversy for them to say that it is a fantasy? And why do they want it both ways? They say it is also based on the 9/11 Commission Report.
And that leads to another issue: is it morally right to use public airwaves to fantasize about 9/11 before most factual 9/11 reports have sunk in and before most 9/11 history has even been written? That is a dangerous mix for a divided country in an election season, because it represents predatory selling of a partisan product to an audience that experienced 9/11 and an audience that is still mostly unnerved and frightened by the hint of vulnerability. As many have already claimed: the truth is compelling enough; why invent events that never happened just to manipulate an emotional audience response?
We have already watched as the Scholastic education service and a NY Times television reviewer--whose business it is to practice research methods and to draw the line between fact and fiction--swallowed whole the mini-series' falsified talking points. We witnessed them convey fantasies-as-fact that were not supported in the 9/11 Commission Report, even as they claimed that they were in the 9/11 Commission Report. If a politicized fantasy can have that much influence over specialists who are supposed to be trained to be factual, then it is either a naive or a cynical faith that holds that the general audience will be able to pan out the propaganda in order to walk away with the facts when no balance is guaranteed by ABC or WKRN.
Supporters of ABC and WKRN, both conservative and liberal, who defend the corporate right to political expression have missed the point. This is not about their freedom. It is about their imaginary product: a partial and fantastic interpretation about national security in insecure times. This is a matter of the propriety of using public airwaves to channel fantasia to a general audience. And here is the kicker: they are tearing the bipartisan spirit of the 9/11 Commission apart in the name of protecting some construed right to truthiness, even as ABC and WKRN want us to believe that we can turn to them as reliable sources of facts. It's a fantasy toy!