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[infowar.de] WM 00.12.02: 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.
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
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
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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