The director of the documentary about Pat Tillman says the media bears some responsibility for the Bush administration's lies and cover-up and the public's misunderstanding of Tillman's death.
"The Tillman Story" director Amir Bar-Lev, whose film opens Friday, says TV news organizations actively bought the military's spin on Tillman's death in order to sell an "American hero" tale to their viewers.
"Pat's been reduced to a cartoon version of himself," Bar-Lev said. "The people who knew Pat don't even recognize him in the public myth that's taken his place...most of our news companies are owned by entertainment companies, who know what we as a culture want to see on TV. And so they spoon-feed us our news in the form of pre-cut formulaic roles which we instantly recognize from our movies. That's how Jessica Lynch worked, that's how Pat Tillman worked. It's a mistake to pin all the blame on the Bush administration. The Bush administration only succeeded because of the culture's hunger for these sort of maudlin super-hero cartoon myths, and they gave us what we wanted in Pat Tillman."
Tillman, an NFL star who became the most famous enlistee in the military, was initially said to have been killed during a Taliban ambush, and he was awarded a Silver Star and mythologized as a hero. It would eventually come out that he was killed by his own platoon-mates in what is sometimes called "friendly fire."
But Bar-Lev says even the media's reporting of his friendly-fire death missed many key elements.
"Much of what's in the film hasn't been reported," he said. "It's not because it couldn't have been reported. Time and time again we were dismayed to see what the mainstream media had done with the same raw footage that we were using. I didn't do some particularly investigative gumshoe work to unearth these facts, but they hadn't been reported."
Bar-Lev cites specifically the weather conditions on the day of Tillman's April 2004 death, which the film shows were sunny and clear rather than the "fog of war" scenario laid out by the government.
"The Tillman story has been widely misreported," he said. "Most people out there, even though they know it was friendly fire, they have in their mind's eye an image of how Pat died which has been planted there by the government. The 'fog of war' scenario has been deliberately disseminated by the government, and it's wrong. And I think people, when they see the film, are going to be shocked to learn Pat was killed from 40 feet away, not in the midst of a confusing ambush, and that it lasted for one to two minutes."
Bar-Lev added that as the investigation into Tillman's death progressed, the media framed the issue exactly as the Bush administration wanted them to: as a mistake, rather than a deliberate cover-up.
"The Pentagon has a team of very good publicists, and those publicists make sure that the American people get the spin that they want us to get," he said. "And they've totally succeeded in that.
For instance, he said, when a congressional committee investigated the military's cover-up of Tillman's death, the media reported that the military leaders had apologized to the Tillman family for mishandling the situation.
"One of the greatest tools the government has is the Keystone Kops routine, where they apologize for things they're not being accused of," he said. "They apologize for being buffoons, when in fact the Tillmans are accusing them of deliberate deception. They actually very sincerely and humbly apologized for 'screwing this thing up.' And you'll see Wolf Blitzer's choice of words: 'And now, more news on who bungled the Tillman investigation.' You know that's the government at work, succeeding beyond their widest expectations."
Blitzer declined to comment.
NBC News Chief Legal Analyst Dan Abrams, who was on-air at MSNBC when Tillman was killed and now publishes a website about the media industry, saw the film at a screening in New York last week. He says it isn't entirely fair to criticize the media for misreporting.
"Like the Tillman family, the media relied on the initial government accounts of what happened," he said. "I think to blame the media for reporting those accounts at the time is unfair. From a media perspective, Pat Tillman gave up an American dream job at the top of his career to start at the bottom and fight for his country. Whether you call that heroism or patriotism, he gave up big money and fame for something far less glamorous and far more dangerous. That, in and of itself, made it a fascinating and legitimate media story (and is also what makes it nearly impossible to believe that senior administration officials did not know that the fable of his firefight with the enemy was a lie).
"It's easy to blame the media and in retrospect this was not one of its finer moments," he added, "but there are far more significant players who had direct knowledge of what really happened who did their darndest to hide it from the public and media. I believe they are the real culprits here."
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