Guest Commentary: Television and the war on terrorism

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Twice in the past 30 days, White House officials have come to Hollywood to talk with the entertainment industry about the War on Terrorism. As a participant in both meetings, my patriotism for my country mixes with pride of my business. The gatherings acknowledge the power of the media to back up our country in this global war of ideas.
Here’s one idea that needs to be said out loud: Television is the “rapid-response” team for America’s message.
Just over two months ago, following the Sept. 11 atrocities, the power of television to bring Americans together in times of national challenge and to forge national unity was once again on display.
Days later, TV networks that have been relentless competitors came together in the same spirit of bipartisanship alive on Capitol Hill to produce and air “America: A Tribute to Heroes” in four days from start to finish. Television allowed Aaron Sorkin the creative resources to turn around an episode of “The West Wing” in mere weeks, instead of months (like normal series TV) or years (like feature films).
Television now has episodes, specials and documentaries in various stages from pre- to post-production. Our industry creates ideas that have a real chance to get before the court of opinion, both here and abroad, in the months ahead. That’s not to say that America’s message must invade all our efforts, but with the sheer volume of air space, there certainly is room for something useful now and again to promote unity and state our truth.
Any hesitation to offer this help, of course, resides in our fears of government intrusion born from the disillusionment started in the 1960s, from the Kennedy as-
sassination to Vietnam and even Watergate later. We recoil at two words-censorship and propaganda. We are passionately opposed as practitioners of the First Amendment to any suggestion that government should tell us what to say or not to say. Senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, however, went to great pains to clarify that his visit had nothing at all to do with suggesting any specific content.
In my view, this is way more about a new Band of Brothers than it is about bringing back Big Brother. This is about being involved in the struggle for our nation’s survival-together. We need a new word for this relationship, one that encompasses the voluntary and patriotic nature of it. I think the new word is advocacy. We are now advocating America’s message. And who better to do it than the communications industry of America?
Delivering the truth
What is America’s message, and how should we get it across? Mr. Rove came prepared to brief attendees on national priorities. Stated simply, America is engaged in a global war against the evil of terrorism, not the religion of Islam. The way to fight back at home is to support our country, our children, our troops and families, through volunteerism. And, most important for the media to hear, no propaganda is required. Truth is on our side.
Where does this message go, then? Can we look to previous experience as a guide?
The World War II paradigm had to do with simpler times. Americans needed to receive information in a motivational way, and there was no television, let alone the massive network and cable universe we live with today.
In this new millennium, the long-term challenge may very well be to communicate America’s message across the global community in order to create bridges of understanding. This needs to be done based not so much on any utopian vision of world peace but on the practical assessment that the greater understanding our message receives worldwide, the fewer terrorists bent on our annihilation will be created.
As the chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, I represent more than 11,000 women and men who work in a cross-section of the entertainment community-from writers and directors to executives and publicists to hairdressers and cinematographers. This is an enormously diverse skill set, which can be brought to bear in the service of our country.
Numerous people in the television community who wish to offer their services in this cause have contacted the Academy. Across America, every community is looking to pitch in, and Hollywood is no exception.
America’s message can be advanced across the entertainment spectrum from characters and story lines in existing series through new series and documentaries and ideas that have yet to come forward, ones that celebrate our heroes and ideals and are sensitive to the situation we find ourselves in. As a writer-producer by trade, I brainstormed with my wife, Jackie, who’s also a writer, for two days before the Rove meeting and came in with 20 ideas. As it turned out, the meeting wasn’t a roll-up-your-sleeves work session, but now, armed with new concepts, it is my job to take some to market, and encourage other writers and producers to do so as well.
Getting involved
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is also on the move. In the next week, we will announce plans for our own task force to assist television studios, networks and producers to make their own unique contributions in the War on Terrorism. We will help coordinate projects, assist in streamlining the approval process, sponsor events and do our part to maintain morale on the home front.
Among our plans, for example, is a troop entertainment special in the Southern California area, which could draw on the talents of TV professionals from all the networks. We are also staging a panel on Dec. 5 called “Hollywood Goes To War: Politics, Showbiz and the War on Terrorism.” We’ll bring together a network president, a White House insider, a top show runner, an AP correspondent back from Afghanistan and several other key players in a free exchange of ideas to debate and discuss this call to action.
America is based on a marketplace of ideas. So is Hollywood. In the rich diversity of our nation and of our culture, there is greatness. The television community can help place that message more effectively before the world culture, and it will.