Global Hollywood

We are all experts at understanding Hollywood movies. We have to be, given their presence on most cinema and television screens. Global Hollywood is a site for discussing the success of Hollywood around the world, drawing on the work done by a group of people to produce the books Global Hollywood (2001) and Global Hollywood 2 (2005), and updating it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Intellectuals and the US media


Toby Miller

I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense—Edward R Murrow (1958)

It is all in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. And it very much serves the purposes of the present administration. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last 11 September was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words—that words could not possibly do justice to our grief and indignation—our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in borrowed words of contempt—Susan Sontag (2002)

Outside the pedagogical tasks of babysitting (high school), transitioning (college), re-infantilizing (graduate school), and hegemonizing (professional training for business, the law, and medicine), intellectuals have two roles in US public life. The first is to be technocrats, providing solutions to problems that will make money or allow governments to achieve policy targets. The second is to offer cultural critique and political intelligence to the élite, both inside and outside the state. Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ (“Susan,” 2005).

Neoliberals and conservatives utilize the media spectacularly. Policy proposals are left up to their corporate masters, because right-wing media discourse does not undertake rational analyses aimed at technocratic outcomes. Instead, it works via a blend of grass-roots religious superstition and public outreach that stresses column inches and shouted seconds, not professional expertise (Kallick, 2002). Funded by some of the wealthiest US foundations and families, such as Olin, Scaife, Koch, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson, there are over three hundred right-wing ‘coin-operated’ think-tanks in Washington, dealing with topics from sexuality to foreign policy. They hire ghost-writers to make their resident intellectuals’ prose attractive—a project to market opinion, rather than to conduct research. Each “study” they fund is essentially the alibi for an op-ed piece. The corollary numbers for media coverage are striking. Progressive think-tanks had a sixth share of media quotation compared to reactionary institutions during the 1990s. In the decade to 2005, reactionaries averaged 51% of citations and progressives 14%; journalists even call the supposedly independent Heritage Foundation when the White House has no-one available. If we believe in market-based rhetoric, then the people who appear on the major three TV networks’ newscasts as experts should be indices of consumer desire; in which case, the public “wants” 92% of these mavens to be white, 90% born between 1945 and 1960, 85% male, and 75% Republican. That might expose us to the cohort that is responsible for our troubles, but not to disinterested critique (Karr, 2005; Alterman 2003: 85; Dolny, 2003 and 2005; Hart 2005: 52; Claussen 2004: 56; Love 2003: 246; Cohen, 2005).

Media attention does not correlate with scholarly esteem or achievement, and the academics most likely to be interviewed have worked in government. These public intellectuals are general rather than specific in their remarks, and disdainful of both theory and fact—an unusual combination. They have displaced expertise and journalism with position-taking. It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network—over fifty in 2003 (Tugend, 2003). Margaret Carlson, a correspondent for Time and one of CNN’s vocalists, explained the key qualifications for her television work in these damning words: ‘The less you know about something, the better off you are … sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge’ (quoted in Alterman 2003: 32).

The system bespeaks the right’s success at culture capture. This taps into a rich vein of anti-intellectualism that derives from creepy Christianity, populism, and instrumentalism. It dates back to newspaper assaults on John Quincy Adams for ‘book learning’ and Adlai Stevenson as effeminate (Claussen 2004: 18-21, 40-41). There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities. So few if any professional academicians appear on air to explain the history of US foreign policy, despite the country’s relationships with oil interests, arms manufacturers, and despots to keep oil prices low; its complex twists and turns supporting and undermining various brands of Islam and Arab rule; and its bizarre insistence on an ethical reputation, while essentially rejecting international law other than over copyright. Nor do we see consistently competent contextualization of the hypocrisies and horrors of its opponents. Instead, a jingoistic and spiritual message comes through, juxtaposing freedom and decency with repression and fanaticism in a way that always seems to break down the binary rather disturbingly, and heightens a sense of risk without explaining it other than via the clash twins. E pluribus unum is part of the networks’ discourse, but it is applied as a loyalty test, where talking in a way that is counter to the Administration is equated with lack of professional objectivity, and the unity of the nation is embodied in military action, seemingly the last legitimate government arena.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi was unusual—a critical Arab intellectual able to enter the lists of such discussions. He was ushered in because his work had been plagiarized by a British intelligence dossier that Colin Powell formally presented to the Security Council in 2003. Al-Marashi (2004) hoped to use this as a platform to differentiate himself from on-air Iraqi-Americans, who were calling for invasion and destruction. But of the hundreds of interviews he gave, virtually none presented the opportunity for commentary on the war. He was restricted to the discourse of secreted weaponry. Not surprisingly, my search through Lexis-Nexis found that Edward Said’s by-line did not appear in any US newspaper in the 18 months after September 11, finally reemerging in July 2003 (Said, 2003). By contrast, subscribers to the Independent, El País, the Guardian, the Observer, Rebelió, and the Weekend Australian had the opportunity to read him during this period.

Academics are sometimes excluded through direct political action rather than deregulatory pressures, popular-cultural obsessions, ignorance, or jingoism. For example, the right-wing think-tanks that dominate Washington policy on the Middle East have sought to discredit area studies across US universities, especially Middle-Eastern programs. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies is the key front organization for the Republican Party, while institutions like the American Jewish Congress, Campus Watch, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (run by the Vice-President’s wife) warn against ‘Middle Eastern Arabs’ in universities, and place conservatives in vital opinion-making fora that feed into TV current affairs, such as the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (Beinin 2003 135; Whitaker, 2002; Brynen, 2002; Davidson, 2002; Abrahamian, 2003; Merriman, 2004).

Away from the live media, the Arab world has been chided for being closed to ideas from the outside, as measured by the fact that only 330 books are translated from foreign languages annually. But the US, with an almost equal population and a vastly bigger book trade, translates the same number! The comparison of these two regions with the rest of the world is highly unflattering on this score. Still, with books can come knowledge, and something must be done about that. Attorney-General John Ashcroft recognized their importance when he interpreted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) to permit FBI scrutiny of book-buying and borrowing—but not fire-arm purchase (Dilday, 2003; Grieve, 2003).

Meanwhile, the government establishes front organizations to select, train, and promote apparently independent figures. The State Department financed the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, which coached Iraqis to appear on US television in support of positions prepared for them, on the grounds that they would be more effective than Yanquis. The Iraqi National Congress was the creation and creature of the CIA, via the Agency’s public-relations consultant, the Rendon Group, whose motto reads ‘information as an element of power.’ Its advertised services run the gamut from generating ‘a favorable environment before privatization begins’ to providing alibis for state violence. It coordinated propaganda for the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, and has received more than US$100 million from the CIA (Alterman 2003: 82-83; Rampton and Stauber 2003: 55, 43; Downing and Husband 2005: 73; Chatterjee, 2004).

The press should be interviewing intellectuals trained in area studies, military strategy, international law, business ethics, and battlefield medicine. But that would provide media coverage that was multi-perspectival. Instead, the paranoid form of reporting favored by US networks militates against journalistic autonomy, other than when the information comes directly from battlefields and is a “soldier’s story”—or derives from the Pentagon or the Israeli government (Fisk, 2003). The prevailing doctrines of regulation favor a small number of large entities that appeal to anti-intellectualism, regardless of their niches. Scott Adams’ comic-strip Dilbert (Los Angeles Times, August 21 2005) parodies this beautifully via the fictitious ‘Dogbert Easy News Channel.’ Easy News provides ‘all the news that’s easy to gather’ and features ‘a debate between two middle-aged white guys’ about why ‘[p]eople in other countries want to kill us.’ One of the guests says it’s because ‘we are so wonderful.’ The other warns ‘[b]uy my book or you will all die.’

I have some limited experience of these tendencies. I worked for many years in Australian radio, and later as an academic commentator on popular culture. On coming to the US, I was interviewed fairly regularly across the media, I suppose because I was at NYU and had a plausibly English accent. Just days before September 11, I appeared on CNN International to talk about a crisis involving Afghan refugees in peril off the Australian coast. At the time, CNN had 23 satellites, 42 bureaux, and 150 foreign correspondents. But you’d never know it from watching the network’s parochial domestic stations, with their blinking, winking, walking-dead presenters, for all the world propped up by formaldehyde and dedicated to eastern-seaboard storms, missing white children, and entertainment news. The day I was interviewed, most of the workers at CNN in New York were tuned to CNN International, which actually covers news stories, as opposed to the network’s laughable domestic programs. Even so, during the interview, the anchorman looked at me disbelievingly as I listed the history of racialization by successive Australian administrations. He asked incredulously ‘So are you telling us that the Australian Government is racist?’—another sign of the deluded faith in official sources that dogs contemporary Yanqui journalism’s ‘stenographic reporting’ (Moeller 2004: 71).

When I appeared on New York 1, a local cable news channel, shortly after the attacks on the US, I was asked to comment on the psychology of terrorists in a trans-historical way: What makes people do these things? Are they maladjusted? I endeavored to direct the conversation towards US foreign policy and its support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that restricted access to politics, hence turning religion into a zone of resistance. And I spoke of US TV journalists’ sparse and prejudicial narrative frames and background knowledge. The production staff later told me that the board lit up with supportive reaction when the program accepted phone calls from the public, and those I spoke with thanked me for saying the non dit. The staff said I would be invited back (but they may say that to all the boys). I was not. Station management eventually acknowledged that most of its coverage at the height of the crisis had not been ‘analytical,’ because the attack was ‘an open, gaping wound’ (quoted in Boehlert, 2002). By contrast, when Radio Scotland came to town and interviewed a stand-up-comedy venue owner, a media consultant, and myself about cultural reactions to these events, we were not dealing with overdetermined presuppositions from our questioners. There was time for me to draw on theory and history to complement their approaches. The same thing happened when I was interviewed on All-India Radio in Delhi. But when CBS News contacted me in 2005 to discuss George Bush Minor’s admission that he had instructed the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens sans judicial review, contra the law, something quite different occurred. The producer first asked me if I could contextualize this in terms of the history of the media during wartime. I replied that I could. He then asked me about the limits to publicizing information, and I indicated that whilst most critics would agree that the precise timing and location of an event such as D-Day could legitimately be kept secret, extra-juridical contravention of civil liberties would generally be considered another matter. The producer thanked me for my time, and noted that my services would not be required. He already had a lawyer to support the revelation, and needed someone who would attack the New York Times for having broken the story and forced Bush to tell the truth. He had not wanted the history of the media during wartime. He had wanted a nationalist, opposed to civil liberties.


“Susan Sontag.” (2005, January 8). Economist: 77.

Abrahamian, Ervand. (2003). “The US Media, Huntington and September 11.” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3: 529-44.

Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. (2004). “An Insider’s Assessment of Media Punditry and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 12.

Alterman, Eric. (2003). What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Beinin, Joel. (2003). “The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse.” Social Text 75: 125-39.

Boehlert, Eric. (2002, August 26). “Too Hot to Handle.”

Brynen, Rex. (2002). “Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America.” Middle East Journal 56, no. 2: 323-28.

Chatterjee, Pratap. (2004, August 4). “Information Warriors.”

Claussen, Dane S. (2004). Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines & Higher Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cohen, Mark Francis. (2005, April/May). “The Quote Machines.” American Journalism Review.

Davidson, Lawrence. (2002). “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” Middle East Policy 9, no. 3: 148-52.

Dilday, K. A. (2003, May 1). “Lost in Translation: The Narrowing of the American Mind.”

Dolny, Michael. (2003, July/August). “Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002: Progressive, Domestic Think Tanks see Drop.” EXTRA!Update.

Dolny, Michael. (2005, May/June). “Right, Center Think Tanks Still Most Quoted.” EXTRA!: 28-29.

Downing, John and Charles Husband. (2005). Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media. London: Sage.

Fisk, Robert. (2003, February 25). “How the News will be Censored in the War.” Independent.

Grieve, Tim. (2003, March 25). ““Shut your Mouth”.”

Hart, Peter. (2005, February 4). “Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox.” EXTRA!Update.

Kallick, David Dyssegaard. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing? Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute.

Karr, Timothy. (2005, April 12). “Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?” Media Citizen.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. (2003). “Global Media and Foreign Policy.” Media Power, Media Politics. Ed. Mark J. Rozell. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 235-64.

Merriman, Rima. (2004, March 11). “Middle Eastern Studies Seen as Against American Interests.” Jordan Times.

Moeller, Susan D. (2004). “A Moral Imagination: The Media’s Response to the War on Terrorism.” Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Ed. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer. London: Routledge. 59-76.

Murrow, Edward R. (1958, October 15). Speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Chicago.

Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Said, Edward. (2003, July 20). “Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U. S. Ensures Years of Turmoil.” Los Angeles Times.

Sontag, Susan. (2002, September 16). “How Grief Turned into Humbug.” New Statesman.

Tugend, Alina. (2003, May). “Pundits for Hire.” American Journalism Review.

Whitaker, Brian. (2002, August 19). “US Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy.” Guardian.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Content Fights Back

Go visit !



by Toby Miller

It’s a crude measure but an irresistible one. A visitor to who entered ‘Anti-Americanism’ and ‘popular culture’ as search terms on 9 October 2005 received 51, 500 hits—up 30,000 from 15 June 2004. There has been a flurry of debate recently about the connection of these themes for some time, much of it brought on by the plaintive cry uttered by a woman as she made her ashen way from the falling towers of September 11, 2001: ‘Why do they hate us?’ Her words were used by George W Bush in his address to Congress on September 20 of that year, and finding an answer has been a preoccupation ever since.

Some representative US responses include the following:

· former CBS TV news anchor Dan Rather said that the US was attacked ‘because they’re evil, and because they’re jealous of us’

· the European Audiovisual Observatory warns that regardless of its cultural messages, Hollywood was “involved” in the 2001 attacks because of the part it played in an international economy that excluded and dominated most of the world’s population

· Standard & Poors’ 2002 survey of the film industry refers to it as an ‘expanding global empire’

· former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed Hollywood for the country’s abject world status, calling for a new public diplomacy that would ‘put the world in touch with real Americans, not celluloid Americans’

· then Chair of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee Henry Hyde referred to the ‘poisonous image’ of the US overseas

· novelist Don DeLillo told readers of Harpers Magazine that ‘the power of American culture to penetrate every wall, home, life and mind’ was the problem; and

· The Next Generation’s Image of Americans project from 2002 interviewed 1200 middle-class teens in a dozen countries, including 5 that are Muslim. The study found views of US residents as selfish, domineering, violent, and immoral. It attributed these views to popular culture

But the writer Arundhati Roy has powerfully queried the claim that September 11 was an assault on the US as a symbol of freedom, asking why the Statue of Liberty was left untouched, while symbols of military and economic might were targeted. She suggests that this should encourage us to understand the attack as a brutal critique of power, not of liberty, and that subsequent responses would illustrate much about the US and supposed anti-Americanism.

The hard data support her claim. A study by the International Federation of Journalists in October 2001 found blanket global coverage of the September 11 attacks, with very favorable discussion of the United States and its travails. Gerhard Schroeder announced ‘unconditional solidarity,’ NATO described it as an attack against all its members, and Le Monde simply stated ‘Nous sommes tous américains’ (We are all Americans). But shortly thereafter, the giant advertising firm McCann-Erickson’s evaluation of 37 states saw a huge increase in cynicism about the US media’s manipulation of the events. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ study of 42 countries in 2002 found a dramatic fall from favor for the US since that time, while follow-up encountered even lower opinions of the US nation, population, and policies worldwide, with specifically diminished support for anti-terrorism, and faith in the UN essentially demolished by US unilateralism and distrust of the Bush regime. In 2004, the advertising giant DDB declared that the US Government had ceased to be a ‘credible messenger’ in the Middle East.

In 2004, Zogby International found dramatic reductions across the Middle East in favorable ratings for the US since 2002, especially over Palestine and Iraq. ‘Which country poses the greatest danger to world peace in 2003?,’ asked Time magazine of 250,000 people across Europe, offering them a choice between Iraq, North Korea, and the United States. Eight per cent selected Iraq, 9% chose North Korea, and … but you have already done the calculation about the most feared country of all. A BBC poll in eleven countries in mid-2003 confirmed this. It found sizeable majorities everywhere disapproving of the Bush regime and the invasion of Iraq, especially over civilian casualties.

Studies of the image of US film and TV in the Middle East in 2004 reveal that they are almost the only sources of positive feeling in the region engendered by this great, tumultuous state. There is also, of course, massive variation across the region. The US-enabled and -allied society of Saudi Arabia is much more opposed to US popular culture than Morocco or Jordan, and everywhere, the much-feared youth of each country are more positive than their elders. The Saudis receive almost no US films or TV drama for public screening, but are the most determined haters, whereas those most-exposed to US TV were most positive about the country. Across the board, reactions to US imports of entertainment are effectively unrelated to the questions that really make people angry: Washington’s policies on Iraq and Palestine.

This should come as no surprise, since:

  • popular culture’s contents are not clearly and demonstrably key contributors to anti-Americanism
  • the role of the US state in the success of popular culture is vastly greater than normally recognised
  • the corporate power and foreign and commercial policies of the US, notably its militarism, are key sources of anti-Americanism; and
  • the efforts of public diplomacy to eschew popular culture, to counter-balance it, are fated towards a high-culture bias that will not address ordinary people’s needs

So what needs to be done to learn more about the global impact of our popular culture?

Recommendation 1

Unlike other First World nations, then US is not renowned for collecting, analyzing, and freely distributing information about the culture industries. Most of that information is only available on a propietary basis by for-profit firms that “sell to the trade.” For example, US companies spend US$6 billion annually polling foreign public opinion, while the Government spends just US$5-10 million. Scholars, activists, and policy-makers need access to much more detailed results of such studies than is hitherto possible. In addition, unlike European nations and the other British white-settler colonies, national US research funding for addressing these industries is severely limited, and in two senses. First, there is almost zero access by academic cultural-industries researchers to the National Science Foundation (unlike, say, anthropologists, sociologists, and political-scientists). Second, much of the extant research has been conducted in a very limited frame, focusing almost exclusively on the US, rather than its function abroad. We need an Audiovisual Observatory specifically dedicated to measuring and evaluating overseas US output and its reception and interpretation plus links between the US government.

Recommendation 2

The new public diplomacy needs to be conducted with due regard to material objections to US foreign policy, rather than being predicated on the notion of “misunderstandings” caused by popular culture explaining “why they hate us.”

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