The Pentagon’s media spinners

While it’s common knowledge that the corporate lobbyists and political hucksters are adept at spinning the media—especially in these days of a radically downsized press corps—it’s a different matter when agencies of government do it.

Especially agencies devoted to death.

The Pentagon runs one of the world’s most sophisticated media-twisting operations, as witnessed during the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the coverage by “embedded” reporters.

But there’s another Pentagon campaign, one even more insidious—but it’s not aimed at journalists and editors. These “liaisons” are aimed at the entertainment media, producers of Americans films and television shows.

They offer a powerful incentive: Access to military equipment, bases, and even explosives. Producers who swallow the bait are asked only one thing in return: access to their scripts, so soldiers can take out their blue pencils to make certain there’s nothing depicted that could portray the American military as anything other than the incarnation of virtue and righteousness. Even if the events depicted happen to be true.

Two remarkable documentaries detail the spinning operations: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon shapes and censors the movies [2004] and Hollywood and the Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison, made a year earlier.

The first film, based on the book of the same title by David L. Robb, is based on tens of thousands of Pentagon documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Robb said his curiosity was tweaked by reports he’d heard during his decades of covering the film industry as a labor, legal, and investigative reporter.

As Robb discovered, even shows as seemingly innocuous as the venerable early television series Lassie were forced to change their scripts in exchange for use of stock footage controlled by the military. The problem with one Lassie episode was a plot device in which the canine star howled before the crash of a military plane, sensing a high frequency sound traced back to a defectively manufactured wing.

No defective equipment allowed, said the Pentagon. Because the military wanted to create a favorable impression among the very young to entice them into enlisting later on, the script was changed. Since no changes would mean no footage, the producers complied.

And movies do make an impact on potential recruits, with the Air Force-idolizing Top Gun leading directly to a surge of enlistments.

To win military cooperation for the film Windtalkers, which detailed the use of Navajo-speaking “code-talkers” in the Pacific Island campaign against the Japanese in World Wart II, producers were forced to cut a scene in which a

marine pulled gold-filled teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. Marines wouldn’t do that, said the Pentagon liaison, so the scene was excised—even though Robb was able to find Pentagon archival footage from the war showing a marine doing just that.

Producer Phillip Noyce explained the reasons why he and his colleagues cooperate: “We in Hollywood just want to make bigger and better movie.”

To quote from Robb’s book:

The movie Thirteen Days [about the Cuban Missile Crisis—esnl] ran into trouble when trying to get Pentagon approval because they portrayed the Joint Chiefs of Staff as too one-sided. However, the producer Peter Almond had done lots of historical fact checking and even listened to the taped conversations of the incident. Almond and the rest of the production team felt they had gotten all the facts correct, he went on to say.

There is no doubt that all that would have satisfied them is to change the history, but they are smart enough to know not to say that. But they didn’t want to support a major film that showed their leadership taking positions that would very likely have led the world on the decent toward real nuclear confrontation.

Indeed, as White House tapes revealed, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay were all for bombing the Cuba, even though an attack was certain to kill Soviet soldiers and provoke a response from the U.S.S.R. But that didn’t matter to the Pentagon, where image was everything, and when the producers insisted on keeping the scene, cooperation was denied. The Pentagon also blocked a showing at a military base.

The Pentagon did love Blackhawk Down, providing 135 troops and 8 helicopters, though it insisted one of the film’s heros be given a new name, since the real Green Beret had later been convicted of rape and child molesting. They also got the producers to excise a friendly fire scene: not good for the image in we’re trying to kill our own, even if by accident. That incident is described in the second documentary, Hollywood and the Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison, created Maria Pia Mascaro.

While the Pentagon loved Patton, it loathed Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the lack of help cost his ten years’ time and forced him to find the needed equipment in the Philippines, Mascaro reports.

After 9/11, the Pentagon met with 30 Hollywood “creators,” describing what the military brass considered the current threats to national security. Beyond that, it’s hard to say just what was discussed or what terms were imposed. As one participant explained, “We did sign an agreement of confidentiality.”

“It did work,” former CIA officer Robert Baer told Mascaro. “It got us into a war,” with Hollywood misleading the nation, thank’s to what Baer described as “the Pentagon’s disinformation office.”

A little digging here at esnl discovered that one eager cooperator was Donald Bellisario, creator of the top rated network primetime show NCIS [acronymese for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service], in which every second or third show seems to be about an Islamic terror plot in the United States [the same is true for the new spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles].

The films are well worth watching.

Operation Hollywood, 2004 [57:30]

Hollywood and the Pentagon, 2003 [37:48]

More on the Pentagon’s drive to influence the entertainment industry is available here and here. And for a look at similar efforts by the CIA, see here.

The bottom line: Anytime you see a film or television show involving the use of military equipment or footage, assume it’s been spun to present the most favorable possible image to the Pentagon and its policies.

As Joseph Trento explains in the first documentary, “When you see these films, understand that you’re looking at government propaganda.”

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