In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s chief spin doctor and senior advisor Karl Rove enlisted Hollywood’s help in selling the War on Terror. This week, I examine this White House-driven propaganda effort and assess its influence on Hollywood’s output. Focusing in on screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, I recount how he wrote a special episode of The West Wing in response to Rove’s outreach efforts, and then years later tried to cover up the significance of this in episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I round off by looking at the cultural impact of 9/11, and the films and TV shows that were edited, delayed or cancelled in response to the attacks. I also discuss my very brief career as a trans-continental explosives smuggler.
Just so everyone is on the same page, we should start with the question ‘Who is Karl Rove?’. A seasoned political hack, Rove has a long-running relationship with the Bush crime family. He worked on Bush jr’s 1978 Texas congressional campaign, which he lost. He also worked on Bush snr’s 1980 presidential campaign, which he sort of lost but which ended up with Bush as Reagan’s vice president, possibly the most powerful vice president in US history until Dick Cheney. He also worked on Reagan and Bush’s 1984 re-election campaign, Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign, Bush jr’s 1994 campaign for governor of Texas and his re-election campaign, and of course Bush jr’s run for president in 2000.
Much of this involved Rove using his direct-mail business to raise funds and drum up votes for the candidates, though Rove also provided campaign advice and over time became more central to these various campaigns. By the time of Bush jr’s presidential run, Rove was his Chief Strategist. After the election, Rove was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House and also Senior Advisor to the President, becoming one of those very powerful but completely unelected and unaccountable officials.
Almost immediately after 9/11 Rove was sent out to Hollywood to effectively recruit tinseltown to the cause of the War on Terror. In a series of meetings from September to December 2001 he met with dozens of studio executives, writers and producers and other entertainment bigwigs. Alongside him in this effort was MPAA chief Jack Valenti, himself a former White House Special Advisor just like Rove.
Various ideas were discussed, some of which were taken up and some of which weren’t. One suggestion was to paint the Hollywood sign in red, white and blue (echoing a PR event during the Gulf War when a yellow ribbon was tied around the sign) but this was rejected. Another idea was to make another Rambo movie, which was eventually produced and released.
However, the participants went out of their way to say this wasn’t a government-approved propaganda effort, and that Rove wasn’t in Hollywood to talk about content or discuss storylines. Jack Valenti was widely quoted as saying:
There was no mention of content. The White House and its representatives did not say anything about that because they knew that was not the subject that was up for either debate or suggestion. Content was off the table. Directors, writers, producers, studios will determine the kind of pictures they choose to make and the compelling stories they want to tell.
Likewise, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that this wasn’t about the government influencing storylines, saying:
The White House will share with the entertainment community the themes that are being communicated here and abroad: tolerance, courage, patriotism.
Naturally, I am sceptical about these claims. For one thing, if they weren’t there to discuss content then what was the point of the meetings? If the aim was to encourage Hollywood to produce more patriotic and pro-war content then that’s a discussion about content, even if they didn’t specifically say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’.
This contradiction really comes through in a CNN article about the first meeting, which says:
The discussion centered around themes Rove said the Hollywood community could help address:
— The antiterrorism campaign is not a war against Islam.
— There is an opportunity to issue a call to service for Americans.
— U.S. troops and their families need support.
— The September 11 attacks were an attack against civilization and require a global response.
— Children need to be reassured of their safety and security in the wake of the attacks.
— The antiterrorism campaign is a war against evil.
If Rove was asking the Hollywood community to help address ‘themes’ then they were discussing content, plain and simple. The use of the word ‘theme’ – primarily a term for recurring ideas in creative writing work – emphasises that they were, in fact, discussing things the White House wanted to see more of.
So while the White House weren’t specifically saying what content they wanted to see, they were talking about specific messages and political/psychological results that they wanted to see. Which in many ways is much worse. If they’d said they wanted a new game show where contestants compete to win a trip to a military base in Afghanistan that would be one thing, but by describing the things they wanted the American public to feel and believe that’s much broader and more insidious.
The West Wing: Propaganda for the War on Terror
Among the ‘top level creatives’ involved in this process was Aaron Sorkin, the writer behind The Newsroom, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network, among other films and TV shows. Perhaps the most obvious result of these White House efforts was that Sorkin wrote and his team produced a special episode of The West Wing to promote the War on Terror and the specific messages the White House identified. In less than two weeks they put together this special, which aired in place of the season 3 premiere in October 2001.
Despite The West Wing being an expansion of Sorkin’s previous idealised depiction of a liberal president in The American President, he got fully on board with the Republican White House. Indeed, Sorkin has consistently proven himself to be a key entertainment propagandist for the War on Terror – if you watch The Newsroom you’ll find that the one thing that’s never criticised or up for debate is that the War on Terror is justified.
The West Wing special was called Isaac and Ishmael – based on a Bible story – and depicts Josh Lyman (the Deputy Chief of Staff, just like Karl Rove) and the rest being unable to leave the White House due to a terror scare and a security lockdown. This conveniently happens while there is a troupe of teenagers from the Presidential Classroom program – where a bunch of middle class kids get to go to Washington and tour the White House and meet ‘important people’.
So in the middle of the lockdown Josh takes some time to sit with the kids and talk to them about the War on Terror. Trigger warning: this is extremely condescending and preachy.
To be honest, the entire episode continues in this vein – it’s little more than a moralising lecture. But it does hit on most, if not all, of the White House’s desired themes and talking points. 9/11 was an attack on civilization and the threat is global. Children need to be reassured about their safety. The War on Terror isn’t a war against Islam. Our enemies are evil because they only allow one chant at football matches – it’s all in there.
What I do find particularly amusing is that Josh is confusing Islamic extremism and Islamic fundamentalism, because they aren’t the same thing. Much of his description of Islamic extremism matches up with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and various other pockets of Islamic fundamentalism around the world. But there’s an important distinction between preventing women from voting and crashing a plane into a building. The former is fundamentalism, the latter is extremism. Which is ironic because in his later show, The Newsroom, Sorkin has characters criticising each other for confusing the Taliban and Al Qaeda, when he did the exact same thing in this episode of The West Wing.
Studio 60: Aaron Sorkin’s PR for Karl Rove
Where things get especially interesting to me, and a bit weird, is in Sorkin’s mid-2000s comedy drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about a Friday night comedy sketch show called ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’. In the opening episode the executive producer has a breakdown live on the air and decries the base, shallow and exploitative nature of modern entertainment.
This coincides with the parent company hiring a new executive to run the network, so she fires the producer and re-hires two guys who had worked on the show some years earlier – Matt and Danny. Matt is played by Matthew Perry, and he is the lead writer. Danny is played by Bradley Whitford, who also plays Josh in The West Wing, and he is the new executive producer.
Much of Studio 60 is based on Sorkin’s real life experiences. The Matt character is obviously based on Sorkin himself, the troubled relationship between Matt and Harriet – one of the stars of the show – is based on a real relationship between Sorkin and an actress. The new studio executive is based on a real life executive who consulted on the show, and the recurring storyline about the show needing more money is based on the real life struggle to keep Studio 60 on the air. This failed, and unlike all of Sorkin’s other projects, Studio 60 was cancelled after just one season.
Where things get truly surreal is in the four-part special episode that concluded the season. There are a bunch of different storylines in this four-parter but the key for our purposes is that one of the stars of the comedy show has a brother in the Air Force, who is in Afghanistan. He gets kidnapped, and everyone thinks he’s going to be killed.
This storyline unfolds against a series of flashbacks to when Matt and Danny previously worked on the show in the wake of 9/11, showing how and why they were fired from Studio 60. The sketch that got them fired was one they aired the same week the war in Afghanistan started, and it made fun of Karl Rove’s visits to Hollywood.
That’s right, Sorkin (who wrote an episode of The West Wing because of Rove and the White House’s outreach efforts) wrote a storyline where a character based on Sorkin himself gets fired for writing a sketch (that aired the same week The West Wing special aired in real life) about Rove and the White House’s outreach efforts in Hollywood. So he was somewhat satirising the cultural atmosphere following 9/11, juxtaposed with the kidnapping storyline that emphasises how real and serious the War on Terror really is. He simultaneously satirised his own role in the War on Terror and promoted the War on Terror in the same episode.
As this clip shows, Sorkin was doing even more than that – he was toeing the official line that the Rove meetings were not about content. As Rove himself put it after the first meeting, ‘I made it clear today, I did not come with a lists of asks. I came with a few suggestions, but it was not our purpose to come here and say this effort should in any way, shape or form be directed by or coordinated by the government.’
The Studio 60 storyline echoes this claim, even though Sorkin himself is the best example of how this wasn’t true because he wrote a special of The West Wing that included all the content Karl Rove asked for. So is this Sorkin giving himself a pass and covering up his own role as a propagandist, disguised as a satirical mea culpa?
I think so.
The other misleading aspect to this is that they say this wasn’t a White House outreach effort at all, and that Rove was invited to Hollywood by Lionel Chetwynd, a screenwriter. Who is Lionel Chetwynd? He is a hard right winger who had previously written multiple DOD-supported films including The Hanoi Hilton and The Heroes of Desert Storm.
He went on to write DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, which is a dramatised quasi-documentary about the White House on and immediately after 9/11. He was given unprecedented access to Bush and other senior White House figures while he was researching this Showtime movie, so it was effectively a government-sponsored film that’s entirely in keeping with Rove’s messages and talking points.
Chetwynd also made The Big Picture, a documentary designed to help Bush get re-elected in 2004. It was produced by Citizens United, the pro-corporate, pro-war right wing organisation who sued to try to stop national advertising for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. This was controversial because at the same time Chetwynd was working on short films for the RNC, and as an independent non-profit Citizens United are legally forbidden from coordinating their work with the RNC and Bush’s re-election committee. As far as I know this was never investigated by the Federal Election Commission.
Now, Chetwynd was a formal part of the White House’s post-9/11 efforts, and was a founding member of the White House’s Arts and Entertainment Task Force, but the idea that he invited Rove to Hollywood in the first place is misleading. I can find no reference to Chetwynd inviting Rove.
So Studio 60 functioned not just as a cover-up for Sorkin’s role in this propaganda effort, but also as a cover-up for the entire White House outreach project. It made out that it was Hollywood who reached out to the White House and Karl Rove, that this wasn’t about content and that the whole thing was inconsequential. As I say, Sorkin is perhaps the best example of how this narrative simply isn’t true.
The Cultural Impact of 9/11
Aside from what we’ve looked at already the 9/11 attacks had a huge impact on popular culture. Just a few weeks after the attacks the film and TV director Robert Altman blamed Hollywood for inspiring 9/11, saying:
Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie… The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies. How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies? I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it.
While it is certainly true that Hollywood has specialised in massive-scale disaster movies, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the terrorists behind 9/11 were inspired by these films. Or at least, that they were more inspired by movies than by a combination of covert operations in support of various Islamist networks, and by the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East.
Altman’s comments appear to be a reaction to an interview given by film-maker Mike Figgis just a couple of days after 9/11, where Figgis said:
The tragedy will totally affect the way people think about the use of violent imagery and things like that… I think it’s going to change the way we think about everything – I really do. I think it’s a monumental event unlike anything I can think of in my lifetime, and therefore obviously the film industry, which is a secondary factor, of course will change too.
I believe that these opinions were partly a response to the highly cinematic nature of the 9/11 attacks. They unfolded like a movie script, and the timescale from the first plane strike on the WTC to the collapse of the second tower was around an hour and 45 minutes – the typical length of a Hollywood film. Comparisons with disaster and terrorism-themed movies were inevitable, as was a rethink of Hollywood’s role not just in encouraging potential copycats but also in reflecting and influencing the public responses to the attacks.
Nonetheless I find it deeply ironic that many of the films that most obviously pre-empted 9/11 were government-supported propaganda. In order to sell the emerging war on terror in the years running up to the attacks, film-makers had to produce stories with massive, violently destructive imagery. For Altman to complain about this after the fact, without acknowledging the role played by the very government agencies who launched and executed the war on terror, is simultaneously amusing and frustrating.
The industry’s response was vast in scale. I won’t go through every example but there’s a fairly comprehensive Wikipedia page ‘List of entertainment affected by the September 11 attacks’ which lists dozens of films and TV shows that were re-edited, postponed or even cancelled in response to the attacks. Trailers for Spiderman were edited to remove shots of the WTC, as was the finished film. Zoolander, Serendipity and Stuart Little 2 all removed frames showing the WTC. Men in Black II originally featured a climax around the WTC, so this was changed to the Statue of Liberty. The 1976 King Kong DVD cover showed Kong at the WTC, surrounded by planes. Paramount recalled all unsold copies of the DVD before reissuing them with a new cover.
Hip-hop act The Coup were due to release an album but it was delayed while the cover art was changed. The original art depicted The Coup blowing up the WTC, and while member Boots Riley argued for keeping the original design, the record label overruled him. Likewise the band Dream Theater’s album cover depicted the NY skyline in flames, so it was recalled and reissued with different cover art.
Meanwhile, major Hollywood studios lost tens of millions – possibly hundreds of millions – of dollars by delaying the release of several major films. Collateral Damage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was delayed because it was about terrorism, and a scene where Sofia Vergara hijacks a plane was removed before the film came out. Training Day and View from the Top were both delayed by months, as were the CIA-supported Bad Company (which features a plot to bomb Manhattan) and Big Trouble (which includes a nuclear bomb being smuggled on board an aircraft). The sequel to True Lies was cancelled entirely, apparently because the producers felt that ‘a comedy about fundamentalist terrorists wouldn’t be funny any more’.
There are other examples, such as the CIA-supported TV series The Agency, which dropped its pilot episode down the running order because it centred on an Islamist terror attack on the West. The CIA-supported film Spy Game was edited to reduce the amount of smoke after a bomb blast, because of fears it looked too much like the smouldering rubble of the WTC. And the CIA-supported The Bourne Identity was heavily re-shot and re-edited because having the CIA as the antagonist might be interpreted as anti-American.
Given how self-referential and ‘meta’ this story is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this post-9/11 cultural atmosphere also affected an episode of Friends. In the original script Chandler and Monica are unable to board a flight for their honeymoon after Chandler starts making jokes about bombing the airport. The episode was extensively rewritten and reshot to remove this, though the original scenes were made available some years later as a DVD extra.
This is all particularly surreal because, of course, Chandler is played by the same actor – Matthew Perry – who plays Matt, the lead writer in Studio 60. I can only assume this is a bizarre coincidence, though I do wonder if the storyline in Studio 60 was in part inspired by the editing of this episode of Friends.
Interestingly, a similar scene appears in the CIA-supported film Meet the Parents, when Ben Stiller keeps saying ‘bomb’ while trying to catch a flight.
This appears to have provoked an incident in 2005 when a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight found a napkin with ‘bomb bomb bomb’ written on it and then ‘Meet the Parents’ in brackets. The plane was diverted back to its airport of origin and there was quite a stir, this coming just a couple of weeks after the London bombings.
I did FOIA the FBI for records relating to this incident, because news reports said they responded and investigated. But on multiple occasions the FBI said they couldn’t find any records whatsoever, and my appeal against this was unsuccessful. I’m not sure if they were trying to cover something up or just be their usual incompetent selves, but it’s an interesting twist to this tale.