terrorism – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 TV and the Propaganda Crisis http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/10/tv-and-the-propaganda-crisis/ Mon, 10 Aug 2015 13:00:42 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27796 Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change, to explore how the prickly world of government propagandists lends critical context to television representations of espionage and the War on Terror. ]]> Post by Deborah Jaramillo, Boston University

It is a little surprising and disconcerting that the great preoccupation of 21st century television—the fragmentation of the mass audience across multiple distribution platforms—has likewise afflicted government propagandists. In her new book, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change (Manchester University Press, 2015), Emma Louise Briant argues that the post-9/11 media landscape has turned propaganda campaigns into frustrating hunts for receptive audiences. In the Internet age, locating and convincing a sizeable group of people—potential combatants or consumers—to buy your content is a problem that unites all message makers.


Dramatic series have much to say about the power of messaging in international conflict. The fourth season of Showtime’s Homeland grapples with the inability of the U.S. to control its message when anyone with a mobile phone and an Internet connection can broadcast. Squeezing U.S. drone strikes, a stateless enemy, and a Benghazi-like attack into a single season, Homeland employs the art of serial narrative to craft an endlessly disastrous scenario predicated on the decentralization of enemy power and the debilitating struggles within the U.S. security apparatus. Briant offers a highly detailed primer on the degree of disarray that Homeland attempts to portray. Especially intriguing and maddening is the narrative of inter-agency rivalry that runs throughout the book. The overwhelming tension and lack of coordination between the CIA, Department of State, and Department of Defense are obvious fodder for an hour-long drama (or a sitcom, for that matter). The reality of this type of discord—explicated in great detail by Briant—might explain the allure of the covert, rigidly centralized, and flawlessly coherent espionage agency B613 in ABC’s Scandal. There can be no turf wars or chaos if, officially, there is neither turf nor uncertainty.

Chaos—or something approximating it—drives Homeland. FX’s The Americans, set in the 1980s, resonates in the post-9/11 world by offering a relative sense of order. The series, which follows married Soviet spies masquerading as inconspicuous travel agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, constructs a simpler time complete with fewer channels, coherent messaging, and an identifiable enemy. The characters, thankfully, undercut that simplicity and craft a layered sense of Reaganite politics and culture. The opening credit sequence, too, participates in a vital way, drawing stark parallels between U.S. and Soviet propaganda in order to position us uncomfortably within nostalgia and nationalism.

The Americans | Title Sequence from Wes | VoicesFILM.com on Vimeo.

Briant points to the Cold War as the point at which private forms of persuasion and meaning making—public relations, advertising, motion pictures—assumed greater roles in “constructing the American image at home and abroad.” Focused as it is on the Soviets’ infiltration of sedate middle-class life—a life that “doesn’t turn out socialists,” as Philip argues in the pilot—The Americans actively and ironically showcases consumer goods as markers of American freedom (Philip’s love affair with cowboy boots, daughter Paige’s red bra, a Soviet defector’s junk food fetish) and emphasizes Elizabeth’s clear disdain for them. The series is anchored in the tension between the American image that Briant discusses and the self-identification of our communist protagonists—a tension frequently funneled through the nuclear family and their bland, suburban neighborhood. Upon learning that his new neighbor, Stan Beeman, happens to be an FBI counterintelligence officer, Philip jokes that he will avoid spying around the neighborhood. Beeman warns, “Especially for the Russians,” to which Philip replies, “They’re the worst, right?” Propaganda’s domestic reach, enabled by commercial media as Briant argues, appears in that exchange and throughout the family’s daily life. In the Season 3 episode “Stingers,” the family breakfast nook transforms into a confessional that pits anti-communist messages against the spies’ commitment to their own set of values. Nurturing and non-threatening in this domestic environment, Elizabeth attempts to disentangle her fight from an entire cultural apparatus designed to discredit her: “Most of what you hear about the Soviet Union isn’t true…. We serve our country, but we also serve the cause of peace around the world. We fight for people who can’t fight for themselves.” How Elizabeth will disrupt the influence of the “American image” that Briant writes about is the question.

Understanding the role of entertainment—TV news included—in the construction of that image is key. As the most spectacular mouthpiece for U.S. values and military might, the entertainment industry showed up to the so-called War on Terror with both traditional and innovative techniques for defeating the enemy. But things have changed since 2001. Twenty-first century propaganda—corporate or governmental—is not as coherent as it wants to be. While trying to keep up with ISIS, a force fluent in the language of social media, U.S. intelligence agencies are manufacturing messages that can easily trample or contradict each other as they navigate multiple communication platforms. Briant’s work excels in pushing us to reflect on the reasons why agency cultures and propaganda planning are so fraught. But we do need to think about process and product. Briant argues that the chasm between U.S. propaganda and foreign policy—between message and reality—can contribute to the sort of instability that enables the rise of a group like ISIS. And how has ISIS managed its message? In addition to pioneering hashtag terrorism, ISIS has created an audio-visual rupture in the representation of war. Our understanding of what violence looks and sounds like is no longer mediated entirely by broadcast and cable news. Whether motivated by concerns about decency, national security, or advertising dollars, TV news has sheltered U.S. audiences from the human toll of military actions. Victims of our wars have been rendered invisible through government and corporate propaganda. The unbearable barrage of ISIS videos reverses that trend and makes explicit the relationship between violence and victims. So, the current propaganda crisis facing the U.S. does illuminate the incompatibility of old methods with new media, as Briant and others argue. But the crisis has also narrowed the gap between U.S. audiences and their awareness of the costs of war.


“Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/#comments Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17398 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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