How Washington co-opts Hollywood and the news media

Aug 15, 2021

Latest exposé of Pentagon documents show how Washington manipulates an ostensibly free and independent media industry.

If you were a fan of the US hit spy series Homeland and wondered why its last season in 2020 ended the way it did with Russian agents and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, the latest release of confidential Pentagon documents offers some clues.

The US Department of Defence (DoD), it turns out, routinely demands script changes to major movie, cable, and TV productions to ensure favourable portrayal and ideological alignment. It does the same with media groups over news coverage. Under a Freedom of Information request, it was compelled to release 133 pages of documents covering its liaisons with Hollywood and cable channels over two years, between 2016 and 2017. The full file was subsequently leaked on Reddit.

It has long been known that the DoD and other government departments such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) not only support film and cable productions but also actively intervene and manipulate their contents.

Here’s a fascinating timeline on how the military worked to make sure a storyline of the final season of Homeland, starring Claire Danes, was acceptable.

On the week of January 4, 2019, the DoD notes said: “Received request for US Army support of final season of Homeland. Army has declined to support based on major problems noted in scripts.”

Headway was made by the week of March 29: “Army Entertainment office is currently in talks with the producers of Homeland … Initial request was declined due to a storyline that was not an accurate portrayal of soldiers. Showrunner responded with some significant edits to the problematic areas. Army has agreed to a conference call to explore the way ahead.”

The Pentagon office got what it wanted, noting on the week of April 4: “Showrunner responded with some significant edits to the problematic areas. Army has agreed to provide support as requested”.

The DoD has offices representing the army, navy and air force, among other military branches, with Hollywood and the media industry in general. Recent movies it supported and/or had input into included: The Fate of the Furious, aka Fast & Furious 8, Patriots DayHidden FiguresJackie, Tom Hanks’ Sully and Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 To ParisCaptain MarvelTop Gun: Maverick, and Transformers: The Last Knight.

It also helps documentary makers and major news productions, as this 2017 entry shows: “Air Force supported an on-air reunion of the crew of Mongoose 33, an MH-53 shot down over Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 on ABC’s The View.”

In return for support, the Pentagon expects some control or influence over content. For example, an air force recruitment campaign was tied to Captain Marvel.

About the HBO drama series,
We Are What We Are, featuring a teenage friendship on a US military base in Italy, this is what the Pentagon notes said: “Script review for proposed HBO episodic series, is complete … Numerous problems exist with the current drafts of scripts including underage drinking and instances of physical abuse without repercussions (sic). Army has provided producers/writers with copious notes. Now awaiting feedback and resolution.”

Commenting on the CBS TV series, The Code, about military lawyers, the Pentagon noted: “Marine Corps leadership was apparently provided advance copies of several of the episodes and was displeased enough that they communicated what they saw as serious shortcomings in the depiction of the Marines. CBS Television has indicated a desire to correct the problems in future episodes by accepting DoD assistance.”

Other popular TV productions such as SEAL TeamNCISNCIS: New Orleans, and Hawaii 5-0 all had their scripts reviewed and approved.

On Top Gun: Maverick, the Pentagon obtained minor script changes: “No major problems with the storyline or characterisations noted … some revision to characterisations and actions of Naval aviators noted.”

It’s often observed that the US’ greatest global soft power is Hollywood. The latest exposé offers insights into how that works. The other part of the soft power equation is the news media, which also easily falls in line with Washington, especially when it comes to covering foreign relations and national security.

Critics have often observed Washington’s revolving door for high-level government employees to private-sector jobs and vice versa. The US media industry is no exception. The dominant and most influential news channels now routinely hire the most senior figures formerly with the US military and intelligence as consultants and commentators. I have written about that in this space on June 24 but here’s a partial list:

John Brennan, former director of the CIA, became senior national security and intelligence analyst for NBC News and MSNBC; James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, became national security analyst for CNN; Michael Hayden, former CIA director and ex-director of the National Security Agency, became CNN national security analyst; Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser, first worked for CNN, then CBS, as its national security analyst; Chuck Rosenberg, former acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the host of the MSNBC podcast The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. The list goes on.

In the United States, small, independent city newspapers have virtually disappeared. Instead, there has been an extraordinary consolidation of major news groups in recent decades leading to extreme ownership concentration by a handful of corporate media giants – about five or six, depending on how you count them.

The US Commerce Department defines the media industry as including radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books, music, movies, internet, and cable. By this laundry list, about 50 companies owned 90 per cent of US media in 1983.

President Bill Clinton lifted most restrictions on cross-media ownership in 1996. Unsurprisingly, by the middle of the last decade, just six corporate giants – Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney – owned 90 per cent of US media. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and a few others, which dominate the internet, filter those same news stories for online users.

That’s a big problem for the American public because they have been told their media industry is free and independent. And since Washington is prone to military conflicts in far-flung places, the lives of their own sons and daughters may be at stake. The mainstream US news media play a preponderant role in first demonising countries Washington wants to subvert or destroy, thereby softening the potential resistance of the general public who might otherwise object to its policies if they are cognisant of the real interests and priorities of their nation’s ruling elites.

When you watch China’s media, you know they are controlled by the state, and they don’t pretend otherwise. But when you watch US media, you may think they are free and independent. That’s far more insidious.

This article was republished from the South China Morning Post 9 August 2021.

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