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New evidence for the surprisingly significant propaganda role of the CIA and the DOD in the screen entertainment industry

This article reassesses the relationships of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense with the American entertainment industry. Both governmental institutions present their relationships as modest in scale, benign in nature, passive, and concerned with historical and technical accuracy rather than politics. The limited extant commentary reflects this reassuring assessment. However, we build on a patchy reassessment begun at the turn of the 21st century, using a significant new set of documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. We identify three key facets of the state-entertainment relationship that are under-emphasized or absent from the existing commentary and historical record: 1. The withholding of available data from the public; 2. The scale of the work; and 3. The level of politicization. As such, the article emphasizes a need to pay closer attention to the deliberate propaganda role played by state agencies in promoting the US national security state through entertainment media in western societies.

Part 1 - Method and Literature: The Need to Refocus on Entertainment Production Processes

When examining the political nature of a piece of entertainment, we can variously consider the intentions and motivations of its creators, how meaning is encoded in the text itself, or audience reception. All three are important and legitimate approaches within media studies but it is a striking feature of the literature that so little is written about the role of the US national security state, most prominently embodied by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DOD), in shaping the content of screen entertainment.

This tendency to shy away from production analysis has been exacerbated and legitimized by the postmodern turn, the pervasive influence of Freudian analysis, and the cross-disciplinary emphasis on audiences. Ed Herman, co-creator of the propaganda model (PM) that attempts to account for the uncritical nature of elite media discourse, explains that such a focus on micro-issues of language, textual interpretation and gender and ethnic identity is ‘politically safe and holds forth the possibility of endless deconstruction of small points in a growing framework of jargon’. Consequently, Hollywood journalist Ed Rampell (2005) can argue that ‘movies are our collective dreams’ and ‘emanations of the collective unconscious’. Influential film critic and scholar Robin Wood (2003) commented that movies are ‘as at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences’. US entertainment, it seems, is to be interpreted and reinterpreted ad infinitum.

In contrast, when analysing authoritarian forms of governance, scholarship invariably assumes considerable state influence over entertainment systems and that they are used as crucial tools to spread misinformation and disinformation (Hoffmann et al., 1996; Proway, 1982; Qin, 2017; Reeves, 2004; Taylor, 1998; Welch, 2001). Similarly, although critical scholars of US news media have suffered marginalization in academia, even here there has at least long been a body of material about the role of the state in shaping discourse for its own ends by authors like Carl Bernstein (1977) and Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky (2002) and watchdog organizations like the Glasgow Media Group and Media Lens.

We also recognize that there is a respectable body of work that demonstrates how entertainment – going back to the origins of Hollywood in early 20th century America – represents US power (Boggs and Pollard, 2007; Burgoyne, 2010; Kellner, 2010; McCrisken and Pepper, 2007; Prince, 1992; Scott, 2011; Westwell, 2006). One of the authors on this article, Matthew Alford, engaged similarly in a mainly text-based set of readings for his early work (2008). What has long been lacking, though, is a robust body of scholarship on how the state actually affects productions. Here, we show that a major reason for this deficiency is the difficulties associated with acquiring useful documentation, largely the reluctance of state officials in releasing it.

There was a brief flurry of new books and articles on state involvement in the entertainment industry around the turn of the century, but each of these was decidedly narrow in scope. David Eldridge (2000) and Frances Stonor Saunders (1999) concentrated on the early Cold War, with their new material on cinema being limited to their discovery of an official at Paramount Studios who sent letters to an anonymous CIA contact explaining how he was using his position to advance the interests of the agency in the 1950s.

In two major early 21st century studies, Suid and Haverstick (2002, 2005) systematically document the relationship between the military and Hollywood. However, remarkably – particularly given the detail with which he writes and his unique access to source material – Suid does not question ‘the legitimacy of the military’s relationship with the film industry’ (noting that Congress permits it 2002, p. xi) and characterizes the Pentagon entertainment liaison chief Phil Strub as ‘simply a conduit between the film industry and the armed services’ (Suid and Robb, 2005: 75, 77 ). A scattergun and journalistic account by David Robb (2004), the only other researcher we know to attain even partial, temporary access to the same set of documents as Suid, highlights numerous cases typically ignored by Suid that point to much more politicized and controversial impacts by the DOD. In short, Suid utterly dominates the source material and his macro and micro analyses are, in light of our new analysis, little short of a whitewash (Alford, 2016; Alford and Secker, 2017).

From 2014 to 2017 we made numerous requests to the CIA, US Army, Navy, and Air Force with regards to their cooperation on films and television shows. It quickly became apparent that there had been a huge surge in the number of television shows supported by the DOD, especially since it decided circa 2005 to begin supporting reality TV. The authors compiled a master list of DOD-assisted films and TV using IMDB, the Entertainment Liaison Officer (ELO) reports and DOD lists, and miscellaneous files, which produced a total of 814 film titles, 697 made prior to 2004, and 1133 TV titles, 977 since 2004. Lawrence Suid had missed a handful of DOD-supported films and has not updated his lists since 2005, so neither he nor any other author had documented the huge scale of DOD support for television. Added to that, in 2014 the CIA’s first ELO, Chase Brandon, published a full list of dozens of film and television shows on which he had worked, which was many more than any previous public records had indicated. The White House, Department of Homeland Security and the FBI had also been involved, as shown by infrequent news reports. By all measures, even without considering the role of less politically controversial entities like the Coast Guard and NASA, the US government has been involved with the entertainment industry on a scale several times greater than the latest scholarship has indicated.

This article shows that the characterization of the DOD and CIA ELOs as minimally and passively involved in the film industry, merely receiving and processing requests for technical and other production assistance, is inaccurate. To do so, we identify three key facets of the state-entertainment relationship that are under-emphasized or absent from the existing commentary and historical record: 1. The withholding of available data from the public; 2. The scale of the work; and 3. The level of politicization.

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