Facing mounting criticism for spotlighting conspiracy theorists in his new HBO documentary series about the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, the filmmaker Spike Lee said Wednesday that he was re-editing the final episode.
Lee’s HBO series, “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” explores the effect of the terrorist attacks and the coronavirus pandemic on New York City. The final episode, which is scheduled to air on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, prominently featured members of the conspiracy group Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, who push the debunked idea that the towers of the World Trade Center were brought down by a controlled demolition, not by terrorists who flew jetliners into the Twin Towers. Their inclusion in the documentary series, which was made available for preview by members of the media, has been widely criticized in recent days.
In a note to the media that was posted Wednesday on an HBO platform that provides early access to television shows and films, Lee wrote: “I’m Back In The Editing Room And Looking At The Eighth And Final Chapter Of NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½. I Respectfully Ask You To Hold Your Judgment Until You See The FINAL CUT.”
In the version of the episode provided to the media, Lee also included the perspectives of scientists who investigated the attacks and who refute the conspiracy theorists’ claims, including S. Shyam Sunder, who led a yearslong investigation into the attacks for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But critics complained that Lee had arranged the episode in a way that seemed to balance the perspectives of the conspiracy theorists and experts who deeply studied the issue, even appearing at times to side with the conspiracy theorists.
At one point, after Sunder asks Lee whether his explanation of events has sufficiently answered Lee’s questions, Lee, breaking into laughter, responds, “Well, not really.”
Jeremy Stahl, an editor at Slate, condemned Lee and HBO’s handling of the subject. “In terms of conveying facts, this is a bit like presenting Covid-19 vaccine skeptics in a debate alongside Anthony Fauci, or Holocaust deniers alongside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, or a clique of climate change skeptics alongside the authors of the United Nations IPCC report,” he wrote.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Lee had defended the inclusion of members of the conspiracy group, said that he still had questions about what caused the buildings to collapse and added that he hoped “Congress holds a hearing, a congressional hearing about 9/11.”
Pushing for further investigations of Sept. 11 has been a longtime goal of the so-called “truther” movement. The movement, which used the internet as an organizing tool and rallied behind low-budget web films like “Loose Change,” has never had much political success. But it did succeed in sowing doubt about the official Sept. 11 narrative. A 2016 study by Chapman University found that more than half of Americans believed that the government had deliberately concealed information about the attacks.
The success of 9/11 conspiracy theories also paved the way for more recent internet-based misinformation campaigns, such as QAnon and the anti-vaccine movement, many of which adapted the tools and techniques that had been used by Sept. 11 conspiracists years earlier.
Lee seemed to cast doubt on the official explanation of the collapse of the buildings, including 7 World Trade Center, which investigators determined was brought down by fire. They concluded that heat from the fire caused girders in the steel floor to expand, and steel beams underneath the floors that provided lateral support for the tower’s structural columns began to buckle or put pressure against the vertical structural columns.
“The amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature’s not reached,” Lee told The Times, echoing a popular conspiracy theory. “And then the juxtaposition of the way Building 7 fell to the ground — when you put it next to other building collapses that were demolitions, it’s like you’re looking at the same thing. But people going to make up their own mind. My approach is put the information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the intelligence of the audience.”
Kevin Roose contributed reporting.