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[] WM 00.12.02: Privatizing Propaganda,

December 2002
Privatizing Propaganda
Poppy Bush and his cronies rescued Dubya's Iraq policy. Now they're saving 
his propaganda war.

By Nina Teicholz

[]On Nov. 11, 2001, exactly two months after the terrorist attacks, White 
House adviser Karl Rove traveled to what must have seemed like the heart of 
enemy territory: Beverly Hills. There, Rove met with several dozen 
Hollywood chieftains to discuss how the entertainment industry might aid 
the war effort, as it had during World War II.

It may be hard to recall now, but during those few months after 9/11, a 
nationwide spirit of patriotism really did predominate. Almost everyone, 
regardless of ideology, felt it important to support the president and do 
something for the country. The idea that Hollywood's fiercely liberal elite 
might work with the Bush administration did not seem utterly farfetched.

Rove pronounced the meeting "very heartening." Jack Valenti, president of 
the Motion Picture Association of America, promised that his lobbying 
organization would coordinate the effort. Even reporters put aside their 
usual cynicism, concluding that the new partnership was for real. "Almost 
certain to emerge in the coming weeks," The New York Times intoned after 
the meeting, "are star-studded U.S.O.-style shows for troops and their 
families, morale-building public-service announcements on television and in 
movie theaters and more ambitious efforts aimed at overseas audiences and 
filmed in a variety of languages, trying to reinforce the American 
government's position that this is a war against a small group of 
terrorists rather than a war against Islam."

Alas, a year after the meeting, the organization created that day (dubbed 
the "9/11 Committee") has done little beyond producing a couple of 
public-service announcements. How did such a well-meaning and reasonably 
promising effort disintegrate? Chalk it up to the same weaknesses that have 
bedeviled the Bush White House on so many fronts: a fundamental lack of 
concern about how the world views America; an unwillingness to work with 
allies who won't take orders; and a tendency to mistake the agendas of 
industry trade groups for the interests of the nation.

Fortunately, a separate and much more successful effort, not being run out 
of the White House and unreported in the press, is underway to improve 
America's image abroad. Several dozen of Hollywood's finest talents have 
been hard at work developing Arabic-language movies and TV shows that could 
be ready for export to the Islamic world as soon as March. Directing this 
effort is a group of Washington luminaries that includes the president's 
father, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleberger, Brent 
Scowcroft, and James Baker. These are, of course, the same people who 
helped convince the president to abandon his more hawkish advisers' plan to 
invade Iraq unilaterally in favor of a strategy of working through the 
United Nations to disarm Saddam--by all indications, a savvy policy shift. 
After rescuing his son's embattled Iraq policy, the elder Bush and his pals 
are now trying to save his failing propaganda war.

Motivating Moguls

During World War II, Hollywood produced a range of movies, from the rousing 
A Wing and a Prayer to the unsentimental The Story of G.I. Joe, meant to 
buck up the country's spirit and energize the tens of millions of citizens 
whose labor was needed for the war effort. Today's war on terrorism is 
obviously different. What this war requires is some way of lessening the 
extreme anti-Americanism found in many Islamic countries, a sentiment that 
creates the conditions terrorist recruiters depend on.

In recent years, experts in a variety of fields have converged on the idea 
that the best way to persuade vast numbers of foreigners to change their 
minds about something is not to drop leaflets or broadcast radio news 
programs, but to embed the message in popular entertainment. For instance, 
one of the most successful humanitarian operations in Afghanistan was 
UNICEF's inoculation of 7 million children in just under three weeks. This 
was accomplished only through the extremely effective dissemination of 
information about the purpose and importance of inoculation through a 
popular soap opera on the BBC's Pashtun service.

"Throughout all of recorded history, great teachers have always known that 
the way to capture the attention of the audience, and get a convincing 
message across is through stories, humor, songs, drama, music," says 
Phyllis Piotrow, founding director of the Center for Communications 
Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Or, as famed 
Hollywood director Sydney Pollack observed recently, "When people laugh, 
they're learning. When people cry, they're learning--if you do it right."

Hollywood, then, has a serious role to play in the war effort. But getting 
studio heads to accept it is no easy thing, as Rove learned at that first 
Beverly Hills meeting. Despite the initially favorable press coverage, some 
who attended the meeting recall a notable lack of specific commitment. At 
one point, Rove asked if Hollywood would be willing to do something as 
seemingly simple as send already-produced films to the troops overseas. 
"Not a hand in the room went up," recalls Craig Haff-ner, a documentary 
producer who attended. "In a room filled with people where the word 
introvert does not exist, the silence was . . . deafening."

Why were the moguls so unwilling to help? Part of it, no doubt, was 
politics: the patriotic desire to do something for the country conflicted 
with the partisan desire to leave the room. But the bottom-line reason was 
the bottom line: Entertainment is a much more competitive business than the 
big-studio oligopoly that dominated the industry in the 1940s. Studio heads 
today must answer to shareholders for how they spend their money, even 
something as small as sending free films to the troops (which they 
eventually did do). Shelling out millions to produce foreign-language 
movies and TV shows that would almost certainly lose money was virtually 
out of the question. "That's just not what we do," says Rob Friedman, vice 
chairman and CEO of Paramount and one of the few members of the 9/11 
committee willing to speak about its work. "Our jobs are to make $60 
million movies and make a profit."

Of course, Hollywood is full of people who love to spend other people's 
money making entertainment--but corporate chieftains aren't among them. 
Rather, it's the creative types: directors, writers, editors, actors. The 
Bush administration, largely ignorant of Hollywood, didn't understand this 
basic sociological distinction. Instead, White House staff members relied 
on someone from a world they do understand: an industry lobbyist, Jack Valenti.

Dapper, with a tanned, deeply lined face and an impressive mane of silver 
hair, Valenti has for decades been known as Hollywood's man in Washington, 
a fixer and translator between two very different worlds--someone who can 
get things done. But as a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, his enthusiasm for 
helping the Bush White House was not overwhelming. Moreover, Valenti takes 
his cues from the entertainment industry heads who dominate his lobby, and 
their desire to help Bush was equally limited. Finally, his arena is 
Washington, not Hollywood. "The ball got put in Jack's court. And it got 
turned over to marketing people in studios," says a former studio chairman 
and member of the 9/11 committee. "Jack is an old-time, loyal Democratic 
Party guy. I don't think he's that anxious to get involved with whatever 
this administration might do. Nor does he know how to do it."

What Valenti does know how to do is protect his turf. Before the Beverly 
Hills meeting Rove attended, there had been an earlier one that included 
(among others) actors Sally Fields and Ron Silver, conservative TV 
producers Lionel Chetwynd and Craig Haffner, and Chris Hennick, a deputy 
assistant to President Bush. "We were Americans who care about America," 
says Chetwynd. Yet as soon as Valenti learned of Chetwynd's liaison with 
the White House, the whiff of influence proved irresistible, and he pulled 
rank with Washington's power culture and bypassed the talent, going 
directly to the studio chiefs. Haffner and other TV producers say they have 
since met a couple of times with White House officials--but that those 
efforts have gone nowhere. "My feeling was that when Valenti and the 
studios established themselves as they did, the result--intended or 
not--was to push aside the legs of what was building under the creative 
community," says Haffner.

Others in the administration are trying to revive the Hollywood-Washington 
partnership, so far without success. Harold Patius, chairman of the State 
Department's U.S. Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy, met with Valenti 
in early September. But so far, Valenti has put him off. "It's not that I 
think Hollywood has any obligation to do this stuff," Patius says. "But I 
think there are a lot of people in that town who are very smart and 
interested in politics, and this is a great opportunity for them."

Dealing with Valenti must have seemed to the Bush White House like trying 
to work with the French. Not surprisingly, after a few unenthusiastic 
attempts at diplomacy, the administration chose to go it alone. The results 
so far are not encouraging. The State Department's office of public 
diplomacy, headed by former advertising executive Charlotte Beers, has 
produced some public-service announcements, but these have been widely 
derided, and like all advertising--Beers's favored medium--depend on 
repetition, which is too expensive. The U.S. government's Radio Sawa, which 
broadcasts pop music and news, has fared better, but to date nothing has 
been offered in the way of television programs or movies. The 
administration's whole "public diplomacy" effort, rolled out with great 
fanfare after 9/11, seems to have stalled. Public diplomacy offices set up 
in London, Pakistan, and Washington to promote the U.S. point of view have 
been closed. The White House has yet to formally announce its Office of 
Global Communications, the body supposed to coordinate the entire 
government's public diplomacy efforts. And while a senior White House 
official said that Bush is "very interested in broadcast media and other 
new media," the administration has made no great show of lobbying for it on 
Capitol Hill.

A Greek Wedding for Arabs

Fortunately, one group of Washington senior statesmen does understand the 
importance of changing Muslim attitudes toward America and has succeeded 
where the Bush White House failed, brokering an alliance with Hollywood. In 
October of last year, Ambassador Richard Fairbanks, a special Middle East 
negotiator in the Reagan administration, assembled a bipartisan roster of 
eminences that included George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, 
Brent Scowcroft, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, Lloyd Cutler, and Sandy Berger, 
and established a nonprofit organization called Al Haqiqa ("The Truth") 
Television Inc. Its purpose is to create foreign-language TV programs to be 
broadcast in Muslim countries. From his time in the Middle East, Fairbanks 
had a good sense of what sort of public diplomacy would work in the region, 
and with introductions from Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), he pulled together 
Hollywood talent, wisely bypassing corporate chieftains and going straight 
to the creative types. When Al Haqiqa first approached Hollywood, "the 
response was overwhelming," recalls Mark Ginsberg, Bill Clinton's former 
ambassador to Morocco and president of Al Haqiqa. "They said, 'We've been 
looking for something to do, and now you guys came in and gave us a way to 
do it!'"

Ginsberg winnowed down a large field to a few dozen writers, directors, and 
producers--including veterans of such blockbusters as Shawshank Redemption 
and Star Trek--who would work at a reduced rate. The group is now in the 
process of raising $11 million from individual donors and corporations to 
pay for its first year.

Currently, 10 TV programs are in the initial stages of production. One is a 
"Crossfire"-type news program. Another is a sitcom about a first-generation 
Arab-American family (think: My Big Fat Greek Wedding in a mosque). Another 
show will feature an American high school soccer team composed of 
Christians, Jews, Arabs, with all the attendant adolescent hijinks. "We're 
not doing this to propagandize. We're not exporting American democracy," 
says Ginsberg. "We aim to show Arabs and Muslims how Americans live, 
breath, and work in the U.S.--warts and all."

Because Al Haqiqa has chosen to work outside the bounds of government, it 
is largely free of meddling influences like Valenti's that plagued earlier 
efforts. The group's copious connections in the Arab world have paved the 
way there, as well. Al Haqiqa programming will be beamed through the Middle 
East Broadcast Corporation, which has the largest market share in the 
region and broadcasts across the entire Arabic-speaking world (120 million 
viewers). And, though Al Haqiqa still could face distribution problems in 
Muslim countries whose governments might take offense at the shows' 
content, Al Haqiqa's members have sterling connections in the region. The 
fact that their programming doesn't derive directly from the U.S. 
government should also increase its chances of being accepted.

If the group succeeds, it could mark an important step toward mitigating 
the anti-Americanism among Muslim youth that breeds terrorism. Even 
Hollywood luminaries skeptical of current White House bromides agree this 
would be a picture-perfect ending. In fact, it almost sounds like a script 
for a movie. Says Sydney Pollack, "In Three Days of the Condor, which I 
directed, Faye Dunaway says to Robert Redford when he's in deep trouble, 'I 
want you to get to know me--fast.' This is where we are with the Middle 
East today. We need to get to know them, and they need to get to know 
us--as fast as possible."

Nina Teicholz is a New York writer.

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