Feature films and television shows notoriously play fast-and-loose with the facts. When prologues proclaim “Based on a True Story,” they’re gracefully implying that what follows is mostly fiction.
Awards shows and moviegoers seem to have few problems distinguishing narrative films from documentaries – and assign different editorial standards accordingly. Case in point: last year’s box office behemoth Gravity was rife with scientific inaccuracies, large and small – and took home seven Academy Awards.
Foreign governments are another story. No matter if films are purported to be fact or fiction, governments care how their countries are being portrayed. And though some may think of the media as immune to foreign influence, history – along with my personal experience – tell a different story.
Foreign PR campaigns have been waged for decades
Last month, North Korea conducted a now-infamous cyberterrorism campaign against Sony Pictures in an attempt to block the company from releasing The Interview.
North Korea may have lost the war, but they did win one censorship battle: before Sony distributed the film overseas, its rattled producers decided to tone down the gore in Kim Jung Un’s death scene.
And Pakistan recently complained about the Showtime series Homeland for portraying its country as “a grimy hellhole and war zone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered around.”
“Nothing is further from the truth,” a Pakistan embassy spokesman said.
If Pakistan looks like a much more welcoming place on Homeland next season, maybe their not-so-quiet diplomacy will have fostered subtle censorship.
In fact, American media outlets have feel external editorial pressures for decades. Whether it was Hollywood executives running scripts by Nazi officials for approval in the 1930s, or studios inserting subtle, pro-China messages into their films to cull favor with China’s notoriously strict censors, foreign countries have long exerted influence on the final products emerging from America’s television and film studios.
And studios have ample reasons to capitulate. From overseas box office receipts to retaining access to foreign filming locations, it doesn’t hurt to be on the good side of a foreign regime.
Hired from within?
But unless more emails of diplomats and media executives are hacked and published, we can only guess how frequently these events are unfolding among insiders. What many don’t know is that American lobbyists also play a part in the process – and work as paid mouthpieces for foreign governments. Aside from an act of cyberterrorism or a diplomatic complaint, if a foreign country wants to lawfully –- and effectively – influence the editorial direction of American news and entertainment, it hires a Registered Foreign Agent.
Registered Foreign Agents are individuals and organizations paid by a foreign government or business for lobbying, public relations and advocacy within the United States. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was passed in 1938 to levy criminal penalties against Nazi propagandists from unduly influencing the US political process. The law forces strict reporting requirements on every means of communications and every meeting.
Some lobbyists choose to break the law rather than do the paperwork. But those who violate the FARA regulations have to pay hefty fines and risk up to five years in prison. The Justice Department also can seek an injunction that would bar violators from acting as a foreign agent for a certain amount of time.
Today, thousands of Registered Foreign Agents collect – and spend – many millions of dollars each year to make sure that their foreign clients’ interests are represented in the corridors of Capitol Hill.
Joseph Califano, Jr., Turkey, and my documentary film
Joseph Califano, Jr. has been in the news recently. In an op-ed penned for the Washington Post, the former adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the film Selma unfit for awards consideration.
“Contrary to the portrait painted by Selma,” Califano wrote, “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration… The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
As an expert witness, Califano effectively exercised his right to discredit a fiction film for its supposed historical inaccuracies. But how, then, does he contend with the fact that he was paid by a foreign country to lobby for the censorship of my 1988 documentary film, which sought to unearth historical truths related to events surrounding the Armenian Genocide?
In 1988, according to his “Short-Form Registration Statement Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended,” Joseph A. Califano, Jr. served as Registered Foreign Agent No. 3759.
Califano listed his business address as his prestigious Washington, D.C. law firm, Dewey Ballentine, and his occupation as “Attorney.” Asked to “describe in detail the services you have rendered” on behalf of the “foreign principal” (The Embassy of the Republic of Turkey) that “made it necessary to you file this form,” Califano entered
Representation involves the application of Section 396(g)(1)(A) of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to the broadcast of the film “An Armenian Journey.”
In April 1988, PBS scheduled a nationwide, primetime broadcast of the WGBH-Boston presentation An Armenian Journey. This hour-long documentary – which I wrote, directed and produced – would focus on a historical event that remains controversial 100 years later:
A bitter debate has raged over the deaths of more than a million Armenians in Eastern Turkey during World War I. Were they simply casualties of war, or the victims of a calculated effort by Turkish officials to exterminate the Armenian people?
The press kit describes the film as “a personal quest for the truth” by “an American journalist of Armenian descent” to reconcile “stories of the atrocities committed against our people by the Ottoman Turks…with Turkish government denials.”
Califano and several other Registered Foreign Agents working for the Republic of Turkey, including the late Frank Mankiewicz, organized a strong effort to dissuade PBS from broadcasting the film, according to the New York Times.
Frank Mankiewicz, the vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm that is representing the Turkish Government, said that the [Turkish] Embassy and an umbrella group called the Assembly of Turkish American Associations were considering such actions as picketing and a lawsuit.
Unlike Sony’s response to North Korea’s cyber attack, PBS, WGBH and hundreds of other local public television stations resisted this attempt by Turkey and its Registered Foreign Agents to censor a motion picture presentation inside the United States.
The Times continued: “PBS said there was nothing wrong with the film, as did WGBH, the public television station in Boston that was co-producer. Letters have gone back and forth, one side enumerating alleged flaws, the other refuting, and the accusers refuting the refutations.”
An Armenian Journey was broadcast as scheduled around the day of the annual Armenian Genocide commemoration, April 24. Nielsen ratings indicated that more than two million US households tuned in to the broadcast that week.
TV Guide touted the program as “fascinating viewing.”
For his unsuccessful efforts to block the broadcast, Califano reported under FARA that his compensation was $122,334.37. In fact, his private, personal attempt at censorship earned Joseph Califano, Jr. more money than I did. His fellow Registered Foreign Agents were also well compensated, according to FARA records.
Thankfully, all of us were able to compete freely in the marketplace of ideas, but the events in France this month prove how perilous editorial disputes can be. Je Suis Charlie.
I have yet to meet Califano, but if I ever do I will thank him for filing his FARA paperwork so thoroughly, even though it was his legal obligation. Otherwise, the American public would be much less informed about how foreign censorship is waged against the media elite and producers.
Fortunately for myself and the makers of Selma, Califano and others like him were unable to steer audiences away from our efforts to present well-made films with high standards of journalism and craft that offer alternative points of view.
Months from now, the Registered Foreign Agents of North Korea and Pakistan will file their FARA paperwork. Anyone who wants to uncover the roster of Americans who profited from the attempts of these countries to censor the theatrical release of The Interview or the transmission of Homeland can do their patriotic duty: follow the money trail that leads to censorship by visiting www.fara.gov.