Hollywood’s New Censors

John Pilger describes how censorship in Hollywood works in the age of the ‘war on terror’. Unlike the crude days of the cold war, it’s by omission and ‘introspective dross’.

When I returned from the war in Vietnam, I wrote a film script as an antidote to the myth that the war had been an ill-fated noble cause. The producer David Puttnam took the draft to Hollywood and offered it to the major studios, whose responses were favourable – well, almost. Each issued a report card in which the final category, “politics”, included comments such as: “This is real, but are the American people ready for it? Maybe they’ll never be.”

By the late 1970s, Hollywood judged Americans ready for a different kind of Vietnam movie. The first was The Deer Hunter, which, according to Time, “articulates the new patriotism”. The film celebrated immigrant America, with Robert De Niro as a working-class hero (“liberal by instinct”) and the Vietnamese as subhuman oriental barbarians and idiots, or “gooks”. The dramatic peak was reached during recurring orgiastic scenes in which GIs were forced to play Russian roulette by their Vietnamese captors. This was made up by the director, Michael Cimino, who also made up a story that he had seen military service in Vietnam. “I have this insane feeling that I was there,” he said. “Somehow . . . the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.”

Ecstatic critics treated The Deer Hunter as virtually a documentary. “The film that could purge a nation’s guilt!” said the Daily Mail. President Carter was moved by its “genuine American message”. Catharsis was at hand. Vietnam movies became a revisionist popular history of the great crime in Indochina. That more than four million people had died terribly and unnecessarily, and that their homeland had been poisoned to a wasteland, was not the concern of these films. Rather, Vietnam was an “American tragedy”, in which the invader was to be pitied in a blend of false bravado and angst: sometimes crude (the Rambo films) and sometimes subtle (Oliver Stone’s Platoon). What mattered was the strength of the purgative.

None of this, of course, was new: it was how Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, which was harmless enough unless you happened to be a Native American; and how the Second World War has been relentlessly glorified, which may be harmless enough unless you happen to be one of countless innocent human beings, from Serbia to Iraq, whose deaths or dispossession are justified by moralising references to 1939-45. Hollywood’s gooks, its Untermenschen, are essential to this crusade – the despatched Somalis in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the sinister Arabs in movies such as Rendition, in which the torturing CIA is absolved by Jake Gyllenhaal’s good egg.

Emitting safe snipes and sneers, film critics promote a deeply political system that dominates what we pay to see

As Robbie Graham and Matthew Alford pointed out in the New Statesman (2 February), in 167 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes. “Far from being an ‘even-handed cry for peace’, as one critic claimed,” they wrote, “Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy.”

With honourable exceptions, film critics rarely question this, or identify the true power behind the screen. Obsessed with celebrity actors and vacuous narratives, they are the cinema’s lobby correspondents. Emitting safe snipes and sneers, they promote a deeply political system that dominates most of what we pay to see, knowing not what we are denied. Brian De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted shows an Iraq the media do not report. He depicts the homicides and gang rapes that are never prosecuted and are the essence of any colonial conquest. In the New York Village Voice, the critic Anthony Kaufman, in abusing the “divisive” De Palma for his “perverse tales of voyeurism and violence”, did his best to taint the film as a kind of heresy and to bury it.

In this way, the “war on terror” – the conquest and subversion of resource-rich regions of the world, whose ramifications and oppressions touch all our lives – is virtually excluded from the popular cinema. Michael Moore’s outstanding Fahrenheit 9/11 was a freak; the notoriety of its distribution ban by the Walt Disney Company helped it to force its way into cinemas. My own 2007 film The War on Democracy, which inverted the “war on terror” in Latin America, was distributed in Britain, Australia and other countries but not in the United States. “You will need to make structural and political changes,” said a major New York distributor. “Maybe get a star like Sean Penn to host it – he likes liberal causes – and tame those anti-Bush sequences.”

During the Cold War, Hollywood’s state propaganda was unabashed. The classic 1957 dance movie Silk Stockings was an anti-Soviet diatribe interrupted by the fabulous footwork of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. These days, there are two types of censorship. The first is censorship by introspective dross. Betraying its long tradition of producing gems, escapist Hollywood is consumed by the corporate formula: just make ’em long and asinine and hope the hype will pay off. Real talent is absorbed. Ricky Gervais is his clever comic self in Ghost Town, while around him stale, formulaic characters sentimentalise the humour to death.

These are extraordinary times. Vicious colonial wars and political, economic and environmental corruption cry out for a place on the big screen. Yet try to name one recent film that has dealt with these, honestly and powerfully, let alone satirically. Censorship by omission is virulent. We need another Wall Street, another Last Hurrah, another Dr Strangelove. The partisans who tunnel out of their prison in Gaza, bringing in food, clothes and medicines, and weapons with which to defend themselves, are no less heroic than the celluloid-honoured POWs and partisans of the 1940s. They and the rest of us deserve the respect of the greatest popular medium.

One thought on “Hollywood’s New Censors”

  1. Professor John Eldridge, Emeritus
    Professor Greg Philo
    Glasgow University Media Group
    Adam Smith Building
    University of Glasgow
    Glasgow, G12 8RT

    Dear Sirs,

    As an independent observer of the mainstream media, I have been particularly concerned about public misconceptions regarding Israel’s illegal colonization of Palestine and the resulting wars in the Middle East. Misconceptions persist among a majority of Americans and Britons largely because of biased mainstream news coverage and commentary on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, it seems to me that understanding the underlying source of that bias, with a special focus on the reasoning behind the editorial decisions of real people with real names (as opposed to an amorphous “corporate media”), would be a useful first step in countering the unfortunate effects of what has amounted to pro-war/pro-Israel propaganda from the mainstream media, coupled with the censoring of information and the voices of dissent.

    To this end, my essay below touches on three highly sensitive and relatively unexplored areas of inquiry in media studies today:

    1. Coercive media ownership: An examination of potentially coercive elements in the dynamic between mass media ownership and editorial control–both in theory and in fact.

    2. Ultimate editorial control: An analysis of the backgrounds, motivations, and prejudices of specific individuals in key positions of executive editorial control in the mass media system today (CEO, editor, and otherwise).

    3. Information suppression and the arts: Understanding how the suppression of information and opinion leads to cultural stagnation–particularly in the arts (e.g., mainstream theater, film, and music).

    I suspect that until now digging into the backgrounds of those who control the mainstream media has been viewed as a taboo subject. However, the current state of affairs in the Middle East, coupled with the current lack of fairness in the mass media coverage, requires a drastic change in tactics (indeed, naming names and identifying motives are routinely employed by other causes, such as the civil rights and environmental movements).

    I look forward to hearing your response to my essay. I would also very much like to know if anyone connected with your organization is pursuing (or has expressed an interest in pursuing) any aspect of this inquiry.


    Thomas Fredric Jones
    (Amherst, Massachusetts)

    [Essay length: 1151 words with notes]

    Liberating the Fourth Estate–and the Counterculture

    “Media is the heart of our culture’s identity”[1]

    Many independent journalists have complained in recent years that America’s mainstream press and broadcast information networks have shown a consistent bias in favor of our preemptive wars in the Middle East and, collaterally, Israel’s brutal occupation and colonization of Palestine. On both of these fronts, suppression of opposing viewpoints has been rampant, not only in the Fourth Estate but, by extension, in closely affiliated mainstream cultural, artistic, and entertainment media as well. And although a number of writers have examined the “how”, “when”, and “where” of this lapse in balanced journalism (whether in the New York Times, Fox News, or even NPR), few have dared to ask the most provocative, yet potentially most instructive, question of all: Why does this bias exist in the first place? Specifically, who or what is behind it?

    Those who cavalierly blame the “corporate media,” as if that facile and evasive catch phrase adroitly defines or encapsulates the problem, may think this question self-explanatory, if not redundant. However, others wishing to probe deeper into the “why” question will soon discover that only a handful of corporate media executives actually call the shots. Who are these people? What are their motives? And what are the wellsprings of their beliefs? These are the questions we should now be asking.

    Analyzing Rupert Murdock, owner and director of News Corp.’s vast news and entertainment empire, would be an excellent beginning: Why has he so vigorously supported the neocon agenda in the Middle East? Why has he so steadfastly defended Israel’s incursions in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon? Are Murdock’s editorial imperatives (or dictates) informed by a particular worldview or philosophy, corporate loyalties, advertising interests, political designs, religious expectations, ethnic affinities, or some admixture of these and other factors? Considering his vast holdings (ranging from Fox Entertainment Group and the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London and Sky Broadcasting [UK]), salvaging our democracy demands that we understand exactly where this man is coming from. For it is hardly overreaching to suggest that this recently naturalized émigré from Australia is the single most important arbiter of public opinion in the United States today.

    The mind-set underlying News Corp.’s editorial agenda may be comparatively easy to decipher. It will be somewhat more difficult to ferret out the motives of the remaining 50 or so top media executives[2] in positions of strategic editorial control who, like Murdock, have served to undermine (nay, pulverize) the very foundations of our democracy by propagandizing and lying to our chronically ill-informed citizenry and electorate. Nevertheless, if we are truly serious about redeeming our free press (and, ultimately, our very culture itself), naming names and determining motives is a necessary first step. Ironically, the second step is to convey our findings, along with their implications, to the general public.

    And there’s the rub. How do we break into the mass media system and achieve an equal hearing? The situation is rigged. Cyberspace has been invaluable for information gathering and networking (at least for the already initiated few), but it still remains peripheral to the mainstream media milieu in which the vast bulk of American opinion is formed and the public discourse takes place. The Internet may be on the cutting edge of technology, but in subtle ways it is a throwback to the proverbial “underground.” Operating as if in a parallel universe, the Web routinely fails to create enough context in the mainstream public arena for an adequate appreciation of antiestablishment viewpoints—primarily because much of the Internet’s factual material, so critical to creating a foundation of understanding and debate, has been willfully ignored or suppressed (hence, not validated or “normalized”) by the mainstream media outlets.

    “I know that the time when music could change the world is past. I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality.”
    –Neil Young, 2008

    As already intimated, perhaps the most discouraging outgrowth of mainstream news media repression has been its deadening effect upon the arts and culture–especially mainstream music. For without a common public awareness of the facts, without a basic foundation and context for mutual understanding and debate in the public arena, the possibility of a resurgence of a counterculture–like that experienced in the 60s anti-Vietnam War era, for instance–is highly unlikely. This cynical negation of the human spirit is exacerbated by the fact that many of the same executives who control our mainstream news outlets also control (or have like-minded associates who control) our most important mainstream cultural venues–along with the requisite publicity, distribution, and advertising. It is no accident that whether from television, the radio, the cinema, the theater, and major music venues, nary a peep has been heard against the Iraq War or Israel’s genocidal behavior in Palestine. Clear Channel’s reported suppression of 150 protest songs at the startup of the Iraq invasion may be just the tip of the iceberg; indeed, we might suspect that the clamp-down on our artistic culture has reached the profoundest levels since 2003.

    At any rate, before we can reinvigorate our culture, we must first liberate the Fourth Estate, which, for better or worse, lays the groundwork and sets the parameters for public discourse, consensus, and artistic interpretation. Regrettably, nearly all Internet writers who have challenged America’s, and particularly Israel’s, Middle East policies have been purged (effectively blacklisted) from the mass media system of today. Therefore, it is difficult to foresee how this intolerable negation of democratic freedom can be reversed without a majority of underground journalists (socialist, liberal, conservative, libertarian, and so on) crying foul and uniting to confront the mainstream owners. United Artists (UA) was created in 1919 to counter the restrictive “studio system”; perhaps a new Union of Independent Journalists (UIJ) is in order. Whatever the approach–running ads, staging events, unionizing, picketing newspapers, lobbying advertisers, boycotting media outlets, petitioning Congress, suing the networks, challenging FCC licensing policies, resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine, purchasing control of a broadcasting network, or even creating a new national newspaper–the common rallying cry should be: In our American democracy, mass media ownership should be viewed as a trust, not as a license to control and subvert the public discourse.


    [1] Unattributed quote from an interview on Democracy Now (2008)

    [2] Top 20 U.S. Media Owners (from Mondo Times, 2008)

    1. Time Warner Inc.
    2. Walt Disney Company
    3. Viacom Inc.
    4. News Corporation
    5. CBS Corporation
    6. Cox Enterprises
    7. NBC Universal
    8. Gannett Company, Inc.
    9. Clear Channel Communications Inc.
    10. Advance Publications, Inc.
    11. Tribune Company
    12. McGraw-Hill Companies
    13. Hearst Corporation
    14. Washington Post Company
    15. The New York Times Company
    16. E.W. Scripps Co.
    17. McClatchy Company
    18. Thomson Corporation
    19. Freedom Communications, Inc.
    20. A&E Television Networks

    (Another source suggests only 7 corporations control 70% of all media outlets)

Leave a Reply to Thomas F. Jones Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: