Bush enlists Hollywood to 'help the war effort'

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The Independent US

Brunch in Beverly Hills may seem like an odd stopping-off point in President Bush's war against terrorism, but we were told from the start that this conflict would be different.

The President's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, has met 40 of Hollywood's top executives at the Peninsula Hotel, one of LA's more recent celebrity hangouts. Their agenda: to discuss ways in which the entertainment industry could help the war effort.

What is envisaged is emphatically not a return to Second World War-style propaganda, with top film-makers spending months overseas producing patriotic documentaries about "our boys" and movie theatres being bombarded with feel-good news reels and updates from the front. All sides acknowledge that times have changed, and that news, information and even the Hollywood system simply do not work like that any more.

What will be on the agenda is rather less clear. The closed meeting – attended by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, in his capacity as head of the Fox media empire, Sumner Redstone, the chief executive of Viacom, a global media company, and Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America and Hollywood's top lobbyist in Washington – was expected to discuss issues such as public service announcements and the possibility of sending stars overseas to entertain troops. Other ideas are expected to crop up in the course of the discussion.

Mr Valenti, who has bristled in the past at government attempts to control Hollywood's output, said before the meeting that altering the content of films to meet the Bush administration's requirements was out of the question.

None the less, as the White House belatedly tries to put together a propaganda strategy to sell America's war overseas, there is a feeling that the country's most visible export – entertainment – is in prime position to make a difference. "This is Washington-inspired, but not government-directed," a communications adviser to Mr Bush, Mark McKinnon, said last week. "We believe freedom is our greatest export and that Hollywood is our greatest exporter.''

The fact that Hollywood studios are now part of international media conglomerates makes it easier for senior executives to control what they market and distribute. On the other hand, control over television and film production itself is much looser than it was in the 1940s. Content does not move the senior executives nearly as much as the bottom-line considerations of profit and loss.

The entertainment industry has already pitched in since 11 September, organising a celebrity telethon broadcast on just about every big channel 10 days after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, and donating millions of dollars to the New York relief fund. There have, however, been signs of wavering. When Mr Bush made what was billed by the White House as an important national address on Thursday, only one of the big television networks bothered to carry it live.

While Mr Rove is not the first administration official to knock on Hollywood's door, he is certainly the most senior. Discussions have been going on for a few weeks as part of the broader propaganda effort now being co-ordinated by the likes of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's communications director, and Charlotte Beers, the one-time "Queen of Madison Avenue" who has been drafted as undersecretary of public diplomacy to sell America abroad.

Mr Rove has an abiding personal interest in government-sponsored media overseas. He fought vigorously against the dismemberment of Radio Free Europe in the 1990s, and was instrumental in Congress's approval last week of a Radio Free Afghanistan to present the US point of view on local airwaves in local languages.

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