In all the ink, real and virtual, that’s being spilled over ABC’s fictionalization of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, it seems to me that one aspect of ABC/Disney’s position has been missed: if the public descriptions of the show are accurate, then the people who made it and those who plan to show it have some serious libel exposure.
To recap, just in case you are reading this blog from Pluto, ABC hired a bunch of right-wing hardcases who got the Republican chair of the 9/11 Commission to lend them his good name. Purporting to dramatize the findings of the 9/11 commission they instead produced the sort of mockumentary that Rush Limbaugh would love, and in fact does love.
The show includes scenes that are flat-out inventions designed to show that the Clinton administration refused clear shots at bin Laden (in fact, no such event took place) and was generally to blame for the 9/11 attacks. Missing from the show are key moments such as Bush ignoring written warnings that al Quaeda was planning to attack. Equally absent is the famous ‘My Pet Goat’ moment. And so on.
Publicity for the show has been a bit odd: ABC sent pre-release tapes to Limbaugh and to conservative bloggers, but not liberal ones. It also refused requests by Clinton and others in his administration for an advance look — shocking disrespect for a former President.
The blogs are hard at work on this one. But nowhere have I seen mention of the libel claim that I think is looming.
Generally in the United States you can’t libel a public figure. [*] Plus, libel claims based on fiction are obviously much harder than claims based on assertions in supposed non-fiction. But neither of these bars is insurmountable. And on the facts as reported, they could be surmounted surprisingly easily.
As one New York court put it not so long ago, a claim of “libel by fiction” requires that “the description of the fictional character must be so closely akin to the real person claiming to be defamed that a reader of the book, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two.” The novel Primary Colors didn’t meet that test as it didn’t use real names, nor were the physical description of any character like the plaintiff in that case. But the 9/11 show differs from Primary Colors in a very basic way: It uses actors portraying real people with their actual names involved in activities that are a blend of real things they did and of the partisan imagination. I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to get a court to see the difference from Primary Colors-like facts. Furthermore, even if ABC were to run a big disclaimer with the episode, that wouldn’t necessarily suffice.
It’s even harder to make out a case of libel when the victim is a public figure. Basically, to win you have to show that the author of the libelous work demonstrated a “reckless disregard for the truth.” Given the public nature of the warnings that various scenes are false, if in fact they are false then I think this part of the case should be pretty easy.
If I were at ABC or Disney I’d be having a serious talk with my lawyers right about now.
* Update: As noted in the comments, a better way to say this would have been, “Generally, in the United States, it is very difficult for a public figure to win a libel case.’