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 Capitol Hill.
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.”