Hollywood is replete with awards ceremonies of all sorts, but during the weekend of November 10, it was the location of a novel one–the Liberty Film Festival. Inside the gleaming new Pacific Design Center on Melrose Avenue, conservative activists devoted to advancing their agenda within the film industry presented ABC’s vice president of special projects Judith Tukich with their Freedom of Expression Award.
Tukich was the ABC executive in charge of producing The Path to 9/11, the factually challenged “docudrama” that was broadcast for two nights in September to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Tukich not only brought the program to the air but also helped mobilize right-wing groups to rebut criticism that it had fabricated stories and distorted events to smear the Clinton Administration from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, President Clinton and members of the 9/11 commission, among others. It was for her enterprise and tenacity that Tukich earned her award at the festival.
Accepting her prize before the assemblage of Republican consultants, conservative film producers and members of the far-right website Free Republic, Tukich radiated gratitude. “It was really my honor to work on such an important project,” she chirped.
I approached Tukich after the ceremony in the theater lobby and asked her if she thought it was appropriate for ABC to accept an award from an organization openly pushing an ideological conservative agenda inside Hollywood. After attempting to cover my voice recorder with her hand, she said, “ABC is a nonpartisan network.” When I repeated my question, she replied, “You should really talk to our media relations department.”
When I asked why she didn’t want to explain her involvement in producing and promoting The Path to 9/11, she bristled. “Accountable? What do you mean I have to be accountable?” Then she hustled toward an exit.
While Tukich can claim that ABC is “nonpartisan,” she can hardly say the same of herself. Indeed, Tukich is a right-wing evangelical described in a newsletter for the Foursquare Church as “radical about reforming political endeavors…especially in television and other areas of popular culture. She believes it is the grace of God that has allowed her as a conservative Christian Evangelical in the television and film industry, to influence projects that are released on the air today.” In 2000 Tukich told the newsletter of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, the Christian right’s media lobby, “The single greatest way to evangelize the world is through the media.” In 2004, Judith Tukich donated $1000 to George W. Bush’s campaign.
But before I could ask Tukich about her ulterior sectarian agenda, the screenwriter of The Path to 9/11, Cyrus Nowrasteh, rushed to her aid. “What are you going and harassing Judith for?” Nowrasteh demanded angrily. “Why don’t you come talk to me?”
Earlier that evening, Nowrasteh had stood beside Tukich to receive his own Freedom of Expression Award. “Cyrus is such a friend to this festival and to so many conservatives in Hollywood,” Liberty Film Festival co-founder Jason Apuzzo said in giving Nowrasteh the prize. Indeed, Nowrasteh is an outspoken conservative who claimed in an interview with the right-wing FrontPageMag.com, a month prior to the airing of The Path to 9/11, that Clinton’s “lack of response” to terrorism “emboldened bin Laden to keep attacking American interests.” Even as ABC denied requests from members of the Clinton Administration and even from the former President for advance DVDs of the film, Nowrasteh’s friend Govindini Murty, the other festival co-founder, was given an advance screening (thanks in part to Nowrasteh) and wrote the first review of it a week before critics from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times were able to view it. (“The Path to 9/11 is one of the best, most intelligent, most pro-American miniseries I’ve ever seen on TV, and conservatives should support it and promote it as vigorously as possible,” Murty wrote in FrontPageMag.com.)
In articles for the Huffington Post and The Nation this September, I reported on Nowrasteh’s political agenda, his fabrications of the history of 9/11 and his ties to right-wing promoter David Horowitz and the Liberty Film Festival. Now, live and in person, Nowrasteh vented his anger at my reporting. “You’re a complete liar!” he shouted just inches from my face. “You were wrong across the board! You made it all up! You’re pathetic!”
I challenged Nowrasteh to explain the fabricated scenes in The Path to 9/11, particularly his fantasy depiction of Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger vetoing a fictitious CIA raid to capture bin Laden. “Buzz Patterson told me about five instances exactly like that. He was right there!” Nowrasteh replied.
Who is Lieut. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson? A former low-level military aide to Clinton who exploited his brief White House experience to ingratiate himself with the right, Patterson wrote a book, Reckless Disregard (released in 2004 by the conservative Regnery Publishing house), that baselessly claimed that terrorists wanted Democrats to win the 2004 elections. His book became a centerpiece of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry. Patterson’s 2003 anti-Clinton polemic Dereliction of Duty (also published by Regnery), filled with errors and falsehoods, was, as Nowrasteh admitted, the sole source of ABC’s attacks on Clinton’s record.
“You guys better quit calling the guys who were hiring me, including the studios and the networks who were hiring me, and telling them not to hire me,” Nowrasteh warned me. “The blacklist came from you guys!”
Founded in 2004 by Murty and Appuzo, a couple of young right-wing film buffs, the Liberty Film Festival is an annual event designed to premiere and promote conservative films supposedly too “politically incorrect” to gain acceptance at mainstream film festivals. This year David Horowitz absorbed the festival into his political empire, showering it with funding from his financial angels (Scaife, Olin et al.), and lending the assistance of his cadres. With Horowitz’s assistance, the Liberty Film Festival has become a spearhead of the right’s campaign against the mainstream film industry, which the right routinely accuses of producing what Apuzzo has called “films [that] are anti-American or otherwise demoralizing to the war effort.”
Besides Horowitz, the festival boasted the participation of Myrna Sokoloff and David Zucker. He produced much of the Scary Movie, Naked Gun and Airplane! series; he and Sokoloff screened several slapstick attack ads they had created for the Republican National Committee during the recent midterm election campaign. Also on hand was Joel Surnow, executive producer of the television series 24. Surnow unreeled a pilot version of his forthcoming series, This Just In, a right-wing version of the fake news segments made famous by Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. According to Variety, Surnow is in talks with Fox CEO Roger Ailes about airing his series next year on the Fox News Channel.
David Bossie, a veteran conservative operative and self-described “accidental filmmaker,” provided one of the event’s most memorable offerings. “We need to use all the political tools available to us,” Bossie told me. “Whether it’s a thirty-second TV spot or a full-length feature, we need offensive political tools.”
In 1998 Bossie was fired from his job as chief investigator for the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which was investigating alleged Clinton White House campaign finance abuses. Bossie was caught selectively editing tapes of former Clinton Administration official Webster Hubbell’s prison conversations in a false effort to implicate Hillary Clinton for overbilling his law firm. Bossie has since returned to his right-wing group, Citizens United, which produced the original racial scare ad about convicted rapist Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign. Now Bossie has begun applying his tape-doctoring skills to film, installing editing equipment in the basement of Citizens United’s offices and funneling millions of dollars from his group’s coffers into producing full-length “documentaries.”
Bossie’s recent creation, Border War, is calculated to propel the Republican Party’s embrace of nativism in anticipation of the 2008 elections: Call it Willie Horton, en Espanol. The film portrays illegal border crossers as a dangerous, swarthy element mounting a concerted invasion of the United States. Once in the American interior, they overwhelm public services, hysterically advocate for the return of the Southwest to Mexico and commit heinous crimes against suburban white women like Teri March, who appears in Border War to describe the murder of her husband, Dave March, by an undocumented immigrant. Like so many right-wing political commercials, while March gives her tearful testimony over an ominous soundtrack, the camera zooms in on the menacing mug shot of her husband’s killer, Armando Garcia.
Perhaps the most striking protagonist of Border War is Lupe Moreno, a Latina who testifies about a childhood destroyed by “illegal aliens.” While growing up in a safehouse her father ran for migrants, Moreno says she was raped, abused and ultimately coerced into a marriage with an older man who used her to gain his citizenship. Embittered by her experience, Moreno began attending meetings of an anti-immigrant group, the California Coalition for Immigration Reform. After placing a call to the group’s leader, Barb Coe–“I don’t want you to hate me,” Moreno said to Coe upon introducing herself–Moreno was promptly enlisted as the movement’s Latina poster child. Today she speaks alongside Coe (who declared at a 2005 anti-immigrant summit, “We are suffering robbery, rape and murder of law-abiding citizens at the hands of illegal barbarians, who are cutting off heads and appendages of blind, white, disabled gringos,” a detail omitted in Bossie’s film) and members of the Minutemen at their rallies.
“I was just trying to undo the damage my dad did,” Moreno explains. Her image in the film’s closing credits elicited a hearty cheer from the festival’s almost exclusively white audience.
Border War also portrays Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth during the final days of his recent losing campaign. (Hayworth’s defeat to Democrat Harry Mitchell, an advocate of legislation containing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, was one of the GOP’s most stunning losses on November 7.) In Border War, Hayworth appears riding shotgun in a pickup truck along the border, far from his district in suburban Phoenix. As he tours trails of migrant refuse and holes in haphazardly constructed border fences, he grows increasingly grim. Finally, he predicts his own martyrdom.
“The Democrats are going to take the House in November,” Hayworth exclaims. “And they are probably going to take the Senate, too. The first thing they’re going to do is move to pass amnesty.” The Republicans, Hayworth says, will sign on to providing “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants in order to appear bipartisan. And President Bush, whom Hayworth repeatedly criticizes in Border War, will sign the bill, thus creating what Hayworth calls “a permanent underclass.”
“It’s a perfect storm,” the square-jawed Congressman grumbles. “Republicans want cheap labor and Democrats want cheap votes.”
Hayworth’s defeat in a solidly conservative district symbolizes the repudiation of Karl Rove’s plan for a permanent Republican majority. Now the movement is forced back into its traditionally adversarial position. If the mood at the Liberty Film Festival was any indication, they relish this prospect.
On my way out of the Border War screening, I chatted with Ronald Maxwell, a genial conservative who directed the Civil War dramas Gettysburg and Of Gods and Generals. “The elites are using us,” Maxwell warned. “Never forget that we’re the victims.”