TV and the Propaganda Crisis

August 10, 2015
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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 | 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.


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