Television’s Reality Gap

Not content with controlling wartime news, the US turns propaganda into entertainment


In drafting the US Constitution, one of the central goals was to insure a separation of powers. The basic idea was that each branch would be checked and balanced: executive power overseen by the legislature, legislative power evaluated by the judicial branch, a judiciary appointed by the executive but confirmed by the legislature, and so on. The approach was meant to maximize democratic rule by and for the people.

In the last year, however, the US executive branch has worked hard to upset this balance. Its efforts to date include a shadow government – involving only executive branch officials – that would assume power in a catastrophic emergency, and the refusal to release documents requested by Congress on issues ranging from official meetings with Enron to decades-old prosecution strategies for the 1960s Boston Strangler murders. Neither is the judiciary immune; for that, there’s hardly better evidence than the twisted logic used by the US Supreme Court to overturn a Florida Supreme Court decision and stop the counting of 2000 presidential votes.


For many people, that’s old news. For those of us in the media and entertainment businesses, it’s also one more reason for cynicism about the state of the government. Still, we often also thank our lucky stars that we still have freedom of the press and freedom of speech. But wait, not so fast! In a little publicized memo issued on October 12, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft vigorously urged federal agencies to resist most Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by US citizens. He explained that “institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests could be implicated by disclosure of information … . When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records.”

This “assurance” boils down to an institutionalized news blackout. As a result, members of the fifth estate are being forced to rely on increasingly nervous government sources for information. And, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ranting about leaks on Meet the Press, most of those inside sources have begun to insist on anonymity. Meanwhile, dependence on these sources continues to turn journalists into sycophants, currying favor, making deals, and ultimately undercutting the integrity of the information obtained and printed. Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that no one at ABC News wanted to talk to me about the flap over ABC Entertainment’s new reality TV show. Based on the war in Afghanistan, and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Black Hawk Down fame, it has the “full, unparalleled support and cooperation of the Defense Department and the Pentagon.”


On Feb. 22, the Los Angeles Times reported that the new show, Profiles from the Front Line, had prompted ABC News to file a complaint with the network’s entertainment executives about access to the war in Afghanistan provided to the reality show’s producers – access that sounds precisely like the kind news organizations have been struggling to get for months. According to an ABC Entertainment press release, Profiles intends to tell “the compelling, personal stories of the US military men and women who bear the burden of this fighting … particularly as they interface with the Pentagon’s efforts … and will rely on materials provided by the Department of Defense.”

Network publicist Cathy Rehl confirmed that the concept involved virtually placing cameras in the hands of fighting soldiers. In March, the show’s producers and crew were in Afghanistan, filming for 12 weeks to produce 13 intended hours of television. Questioned about their complaint, ABC News representative Todd Polk called it “an internal matter [about] an entertainment special,” although he also confirmed that the network has had access problems with the Pentagon in regard to the war.


Despite a pledge by Air Force Lt. Col. Ken McClellan that “the news media will continue to receive timely and accurate information, as well as continued access to Defense officials and US operations,” reports from the media front lines indicate just the opposite. Months after the bombings in Afghanistan began last October, reporters were still being given no access to US forces inside the country, or even to troops setting up air bases in neighboring countries. When they were finally allowed in, they couldn’t use the full names of the soldiers they quoted. On one afternoon, a group of journalists was even locked inside a metal shed to keep them from covering something.

Reporting to CNN, Sherry Ricchiardi, a senior writer specializing in international issues for the American Journalism Review and a professor of journalism at Indiana University, said that journalists she contacted in Afghanistan described a heavy clamp down and the most severe information freeze of the last 35 years. “The military is operating in almost total secrecy,” said an NPR editor who requested anonymity. “We have had reports quoting the Pentagon as saying that the war against terrorism will be fought with unprecedented secrecy.” To anyone picking up a newspaper or turning on the news, these claims seem patently obvious: The number of dead are repeatedly reported as unknown, and battles are waged against a generalized blanket of “enemy forces that may or may not contain members of the Al Qaeda network.” Even the war’s duration is up for grabs. Personally, I’ve heard it’s already over twice so far.


This may have something to do with the new, but now “officially” defunct, Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). As the New York Times reported on Feb. 19, the OSI was developing plans to provide news – possibly including false items – to foreign media organizations as part of an effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries. Assuming a role traditionally handled by civilian agencies, mainly the State Department, the operation’s apparent goal was to broaden the long standing practice of information warfare against hostile nations in the Middle East, Asia, and even Western Europe.

Headed by Air Force General Simon Worden, the OSI envisioned “using a mix of truthful news releases, phony stories and e-mails from disguised addresses to encourage the kind of news coverage abroad that the Pentagon considers advantageous, while using clandestine activities, including computer network attacks, to disrupt coverage it opposes.” News organizations that didn’t “follow the Pentagon line” would be punished in unspecified ways.

Of course, the current administration isn’t content with only controlling the press. Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the US military has been meeting with Hollywood movers and shakers like Bruckheimer, seeking advice on how to develop the plot, characters, and sense of suspense for future terrorist attacks. Although the Pentagon says it won’t seek editorial control over Profiles from the Front Line, it does have pre-screening rights for “reasons of national security.” Given recent government pronouncements, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any malcontent soldiers grousing about the military on “reality” TV.

In essence, the administration has succeeded in creating an atmosphere in which citizens, as well as the press and entertainment media, are afraid to express meaningful dissent. In fact, many people fear the viability of the very liberty on which the US was founded. We seem to have exchanged freedom of speech for self-censorship and safety.

To be fair, the trend didn’t start with Bush II. A conservative undercurrent, combined with fear of government and law enforcement, has been influencing both the news and entertainment businesses for several decades. As a writer/producer on the Fox network’s primetime reality TV show World’s Wildest Police Chases in 1999, I learned firsthand that “reality” had little to do with it. Since we depended on the police for the tape and the access, we never produced anything that wasn’t pro-cop. Not to mention that the show’s executive producer was a former cop. This combination basically guaranteed that anything showing the police in a negative light didn’t air, or was edited to create a positive impression.

After covering up police misbehavior and sometimes brutality for a few months, I’d had it. The raw footage often showed police pulling people over in small towns just because the drivers were known troublemakers. In one case, six cops tackled a motorcyclist after his hands were up. While he was on the ground, one cop screamed, “Welcome to Georgia, bitch!” Then they remembered tape was rolling. The man, who had no prior record, was just speeding.


Finding it impossible to do my job under such extreme constraints, I was finally fired. Although my segments were praised, the official word was that I didn’t share the vision of the executive producers. The point: No matter what footage from Afghanistan is aired, you can be sure it will have, in the words of the ABC press release, “a strong patriotic message.” In other words, it will be exclusively pro-US government.

Looking back, the people who envisioned the United States broke with England, at least in part, because they didn’t have the right of representation; today, neither do most Floridians. Some crossed the ocean because they couldn’t freely practice their religions at home; today, Muslims can be detained or arrested merely because of their faith or associations. Still others wanted to escape unjust taxes; today, the rich benefit the most from Bush II’s trillion-dollar tax cut. Step by step, the US is creating precisely the government its founders struggled to replace. But much more advanced technology is available now to promote a repressive agenda. And the most pervasive, influential weapon the government currently has at its disposal is the US media.

Sadly, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Nazis, who so effectively used filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to create influential propaganda in the 1930s, could have learned a thing or two from Donald Rumsfeld and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Chloe Kovner, an award-winning screenwriter, has written and produced a reality TV show, consulted on General Hospital, and published a magazine, Girls Online (GO), about the Internet’s effect on the lives of teenage girls.