Saturday, September 09, 2006

Peddling This Johnny Space Commander Fantasy

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!


  1. Comment from John Lehman, 9/11 Commission member

    "Well, I agree that people should go back to the report. It's very readable and that is factual. All of us Democrats and Republicans have endorsed that. I haven't seen the film, but I can reassure and comfort my Democratic colleagues that as a Republican having lived with the hostility of Hollywood through the last 30 years, that it's not going to have an earth-shaking impact, and I think that it certainly should go forward. It’s, I'm told equally harsh against the Bush administration, in fact, both Bush administrations and even back to Reagan for not retaliating against early strikes, so absolutely it should go forward, and if you don't like the hits to the Clinton administration, well, welcome to the club. The Republicans have lived with Michael Moore and Oliver Stone and most of Hollywood as a fact of life."

  2. Unpersuasive and further evidence that the bipartisan spirit of the 9/11 Commission is being torn apart at the seams for the sake of the November election.

    The movies of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone were released in privately-owned theatres rather than being broadcast, commercial-free on primetime public airwaves, like PT9/11 is. Nor were those movies going to be supported by Scholastic propoganda dispensed to tens of thousands of high school students. This is hardly proportional or just.

    Disney rejected financing distribution of Moore's film because it saw it as too partisan and divisive. No balance there. In the interest of balance, I'm wondering whether Disney might, like Moore in F911, have so much faith in the truth of their infomercial that they would challenge viewers to find any inaccuracies in PT9/11 and offer them thousands of dollars if they do. I highly doubt it. I notice that Lehman never mentioned the fact that nobody was able to collect on Moore's challenge.