HOW FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS CAN INFLUENCE AMERICAN MEDIA - AND TRIED TO BLOCK MY DOCUMENTARY
Jan 30 2015
Ted Bogosian, Instructor and Visiting Filmmaker at Duke University
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.
Showtime's Homeland has come under fire from the Pakistani government.
blur95/Flickr, CC BY
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
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
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?
Author Ted Bogosian's 1988 documentary An Armenian Journey.
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.
Joseph Califano, Jr. - whom Turkey paid $122,334.37 - sought to block
the author's film from being broadcast on PBS. LBJ Foundation/Flickr,
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
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.
HOW FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS CAN INFLUENCE AMERICAN MEDIA - AND TRIED TO BL
Posted 05 February 2015 - 09:10 AM
HOW FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS CAN INFLUENCE AMERICAN MEDIA - AND TRIED TO BLOCK MY DOCUMENTARY
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