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Barbara Sumner Burstyn: Prime Time Propaganda

Prime Time Propaganda


By Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Does anyone actually watch the TV shows they watch? Medical Investigation (TV3) for example. On the surface this drama looks like just another mildly entertaining medical show. But watch closely and you begin to see the creepy undertones of neoconservative ideology, with its concomitant fundamentalist Christianity, embedded in the storylines and characters.

In each episode the illnesses are caused (not necessarily in a direct way) by an anti-social behavior or as a consequence of some un-American activity. We see the lead character enter a church, cross him self and pray for guidance. A complex man, a top scientist, grappling with issues of faith and science? Not likely. The good doctor is not conflicted at all and there is no competition between his science and his faith.

But perhaps more disturbing than the mainstreaming of fundamentalist religion is the way in which a conservative political agenda is implanted in the show. For example, a disease outbreak appears to be coming from an American factory known to be polluting water. Eventually the real culprit is revealed to be across the border in unhygienic Mexico where people don't wash their hands. The overarching sense of this show is that conservative orthodoxy is the only position to take. There is no dissent, no doubting Thomases, and no rebel bucking the system (unless they are on the path to realising their mistakes). Instead Medical Investigation is a bunch of committed believers: in God, their government and the essential rightness of those beliefs.

It turns out these are common threads in prime time television. LAX (TV2) is missing religion but the politics of compliance and patriotism and the shaping of public perception remain. The drunken pilots are Serbian and the fake bomb is a call for greater Homeland Security. There’s the Asian whore and the naïve, all-American boy who wants to take her home to his (no doubt) pie-baking mom. There are planeloads of foreign orphans and their generous, new white parents. Wrapped up in a slick visual package, the fear that gnaws at the core of America is very much evident in this show, gift wrapped in flashy pan shots and evocative storylines.

Then there are the extreme examples of the military/entertainment complex in action. NCIS (TV3) is based on the real Naval Criminal Investigative Service where it is reported the military worked hand-in-hand with producers to create a show that is little more than pro-military propaganda. The stylish, psychologically and socially toxic series 24 (TV3) is another. Portraying racist stereotypes, torture and abuse in the context of the moral rightness of the war against terrorism.

USA Today reported in March that Homeland Security, following most other branches of the military, has hired a Hollywood liaison to work with moviemakers and scriptwriters. Script approval can mean access to military facilities, equipment, and personnel, saving producers millions of dollars simply by tweaking their scripts to serve a right-wing political agenda.

Not that there’s anything new in entertainment as a front for state propaganda. In the US the Defense Department's film liaison office is as old as the Pentagon itself. In an illuminating article: the Arsenal of Illusion published in Canadian magazine The Walrus, writer Jake MacDonald examines how Hollywood know-how is helping create new kinds of military weapons that target the brain. He backgrounds his investigation with reports from 1960’s where the CIA was involved in experiments that showed that the moving images of television produce a shift from left-brain to right-brain neural activity, inducing a sort of chemical trance that suppresses judgment and heightens suggestibility. The researchers learned that once viewers ‘suspended their disbelief,” they became vulnerable to the values and messages embedded in the drama.

In some ways it seems relatively unimportant, it’s just TV afterall. But context is everything. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that 20 government departments had produced fake ‘news’ clips that were aired uncritically in news bulletins across America. Partner that with the military/entertainment complex and the religious and ideological agenda of the neo conservative Bush administration and you get a picture of an increasingly seamless form of mind control. A brainwashing that extends all the way into the living rooms and lives of unquestioning New Zealand television viewers.

Today we look back on TV icons of the 60's and deconstruct their symbols and styles. We now view Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie as signposts of culture. Will we look back on shows like Medical Investigation or 24 and understand their morally narrow view of good and evil, the insinuation of divine retribution awaiting those not buying the party line, the promotion of torture, fear and racism, as a portent for the society that followed? None of these shows are mindless entertainment. They are superbly designed pieces of fundamentalist propaganda. Watch them at your own risk.

*************

Barbara Sumner Burstyn © September 2005

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