The ‘24’ Effect: How ‘Liberal Hollywood’ Carried Water For Torture

The ‘24’ Effect: How ‘Liberal Hollywood’

Bashing “liberal Hollywood” and out-of-touch celebrities has become a favorite sport among conservatives. But those seeking to defend the Bush administration in light of the recent Torture Report — and that’s mostly conservatives — could hardly have had a better ally than the images of torture in TV and movies, particularly in the face of “ticking-bomb scenarios.”

Fox’s “24,” naturally comes to mind, and the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was criticized for its depiction of torture as a likely asset in locating Osama Bin Laden. Surprisingly, director Kathryn Bigelow seemed tongue-tied when Jon Stewart benignly asked her about the film during a recent appearance promoting another project in the wake of  the Torture Report’s conclusions.

The practice has been employed in other series as well – such as “Sons of Anarchy,” “Scandal” and “Homeland” – and countless movies, with the bad guys using it (see various Quentin Tarantino films) as well as the ostensible good guys.

Indeed, torture is used by both fictional heroes and villains, the main difference being that the former do so grudgingly, instead of sadistically, and, when the tables are turned, usually don’t give up information. “24’s” Jack Bauer, for example, took it as well as he dished it out, and James Bond was still cracking jokes while enduring a brutal beating in the most recent “Casino Royale.”

While the latest report called into question the efficacy of torture, as the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy put it, “That’s not how it looks on TV. Harsh interrogation, as an effective means of eliciting crucial information, has become firmly entrenched in popular culture.”

Not only has torture become more frequent since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but the acceptance of those depictions in entertainment has been cited as a point of reference – and even an endorsement of the tactics.

A lengthy 2007 New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer about the politics of “24” emphasized a declaration by conservative talkradio host Laura Ingraham that its hero’s popularity was “as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.”

Mayer also noted that an advisory panel to the U.S. intelligence community studied the issue and concluded “most observers, even those within professional circles, have unfortunately been influenced by the media’s colorful (and artificial) view of interrogation as almost always involving hostility.”

A few disclaimers apply. “24” was co-created by Joel Surnow, an avowed conservative. And it aired on Fox, a network owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has championed conservative causes across his media holdings.

Still, “24” later fell under the stewardship of Howard Gordon – a producer whose politics don’t mirror Surnow’s – and had to be developed and produced via a system involving layers of executives, many of whom support the left-leaning causes that bring a sneer to Rush Limbaugh’s face. And as conservatives are fond of noting, Republicans are outnumbered throughout Hollywood, including networks and studios responsible for some of the aforementioned projects, as well as all those movies with apocalyptic climate-change messages that many conservatives ridicule. (Heck, even the dragon Smaug complained about “liberal Hollywood bias” in his appearance on “The Colbert Report.”)

Does this mean the entertainment industry abandoned its principles? Hardly, since the main commitment is always to the bottom line, and the visceral appeal of torture – amid the pressure to ratchet up stakes and thrills – trumps any concerns about potentially helping to perpetuate a false narrative. Besides, a bullet in the knee moves the story along a lot faster than waiting around for someone to give up information through conventional interrogation methods.

Hollywood employs a pretty stock response in such situations, saying movies and TV are designed to entertain, not serve as documentaries.

Yet a series like “24” is grounded in reality precisely because that makes such life-or-death situations resonate. And because viewers generally don’t have first-hand experience in such matters (at least, let’s hope not), it’s understandable that their perceptions would be filtered through media – as the New Hampshire Union Leader did in an editorial flagged by the liberal watchdog site Media Matters, which said that Jack Bauer would consider champions of the Torture Report “wusses.”

Given all of that, it seems reasonable to ask whether pop culture — along with news operations whose “News Alert” headlines stoked post-Sept. 11 fears – has been partially complicit in cultivating the conditions that allowed torture to be deemed a viable option.

Since one of the more discussed enhanced interrogation techniques involved waterboarding, Hollywood was at least one of the constituencies that, wittingly or not, helped carry the CIA’s water.

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  1. Jack Cross says:

    The above is an after thought. The job has been done. The horse has excited from the gate. Variety and its employees are part of the problem.

  2. MacSF2002 says:

    I watched all the seasons of 24 , even when it started to become almost cartoon-like with outlandish plots (usually of the “Americans supporting attack on America so people get scared and authorise more fascism” type), and yes there was torture, but the thing is in most cases, it never really gave Bauer the intel he actually needed. So while the imagery may have helped “promote” torture, it, like its real life counterpart didn’t really help as much as people think. Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 reboot) tackled this issue in a much more nuanced light than network tv did.

  3. mglion82 says:

    As another liberal 24 fan(and a Brit to boot)…Jack Bauer always came accross as a relatively dark hero anyway. Given that it was initially a Fox production I wasn’t too surprised at that but the edginess was what made it unique in a way, half the time you were left asking how many lines Jack had crossed! Still a great show though

  4. Dan T. says:

    I’m liberal and loved 24, and as much as I wondered at times if it was promoting torture, I also always pointed out that Jack’s “by any means necessary” tactics completely wrecked his life, so I don’t think it’s that easy to say one way or the other. I think it ultimately provided an examination for a philosophical, moral debate.

    As for Zero Dark Thirty, I thought the point of showing the torture was to show that it didn’t work. They had to give up and trick the prisoner into thinking he had already given up the info they wanted by treating him well.

    However, yes, Hollywood can make stupid people think certain things are okay that aren’t, because they’re too dumb to know how to separate fantasy from reality. Again, we’re trying to shift accountability and blame the nameless, faceless entity that is Hollywood instead of owning up to being easily manipulated.

  5. michael says:

    Brian Lowry has clearly missed the whole crux of the show. What came out of each of those episodes was a perfect conundrum for viewers-what would you do in this situation and would you still do it if it would turn you into the enemy that you are fighting. Very rarely was a character on the show revealed to be a conservative or a liberal. Everything was left to the viewer to decide. As a country, when we don’t like the answer that we come up with, we need someone to blame. It’s, ultimately, a reflection of our own morality and no TV series, film, play, musical, picture should take the blame. If we are going to blame TV, then I say this is all because Charles was in Charge.

  6. Brian says:

    The implication of this article seems to be that the use of torture in fiction is an appeal to audiences’ base / sadistic/ adolescent etc. impulses. However, in e.g., 24, the torture scenarios were effective because they dramatized a conflict between two moral principles: The inherent dignity of each human being (making torture bad) v. the drive to save many lives (making torture morally alright, as a means to that end). The way they were set up, these scenes were just good fiction-writing; just good drama. (And in this context the question of whether torture does in fact yield live-saving information is entirely irrelevant. The drama works because within the fictional universe of 24, it does.)

    If you look at the entire story or character arc of 24, it’s very far from some kind of morally stunted show glorifying torture. The creators of that show characterize it as a tragedy, because of the terrible ordeals the central character was made the suffer, and because of the terrible things he felt it was morally necessary to do.

  7. Seerak says:

    Hollywood has a Leftist “progressive” bias, not a liberal bias. Opposing torture on principle, on the other hand, is a liberal/libertarian principle. Neither of these are at play here.

    Understood thusly, Hollywood’s strictly pragmatic view of the matter makes the same sort of sense as the identical but mirrored conservative view: it’s OK when “our” guys do it.

  8. 1stfruit says:

    Torture is ok as long as “the other guy” is affected- so they may think…
    News: There IS NO “fiction”! The camera does not absolve any actor, stand-in, stunt person, screenwriter, director, or crew-member of the effect their every thought-impulse has on their OWN! upcoming reality, for thoughts are things and WILL play out in the practical earthly environment of their current state of mind of ignorant hell.

  9. Atomic Fury says:

    Hollywood may hold the hearts and minds of the masses, but the danger is that Big Hollywood has had it’s oily tentacles in politics for far too long.

  10. Atomic Fury says:

    Yeah, I’m gonna leave it to “Hollywood” to suggest it knows the difference between reality and fantasy.

  11. Glenn says:

    Shut up. In fact, if you ask the experts in interrogation this question here is what they will tell you. Rapport based interrogation works with most captives, although even in those circumstances there is still physical coercion. People seem to forget that one is under custody before any charges have been filed and one’s disposition is quite literally up to the discretion of the interrorgation team. Coercive threats about sentencing, facilities, others who might end up being captured – all are used to pressure those with whom rapport building is the main technique.

    But with either highly trained and/or highly ideologically motivated captives, it’s quite different. Rapport building doesn’t work at all. This is maybe 1-2 pct of all those we capture. For them, where the information is important, EIT can, did and does work. It’s a tool in the toolbox that should be avialable to us. Out of the tens of thousands we’ve apprehended in the war on terror, we’ve used EIT on 38 of them. Could the program have been run better – looks like it. But is this a moral stain on us? Lol

    Did 24 have anything to do with it? No, 24 reflected what most people already know. A committed enemy can only be defeated by using more force and causing more destruction that he does. I personally would fly down to Gitmo today and put bullets in the heads of all remaining prisoners there and then go have a cheeseburger with the guards who work there, These people are human detritus and should be killed. It’s like taking out the gargage.

    wake up you weakminded fools.

  12. YYYTR says:

    Of course torture works. That’s why it’s been used for thousands of years. Humans are afraid of pain. Anyone can be broken. Allied spies carried suicide pills in WW2 precisely so they could kill themselves if captured before the Nazis tortured them for information. Whether torture is immoral is a separate question. But there is no doubt that it works. This is how Saddam Hussein avoided 400 coup attempts. Only a US invasion brought him down. Liberals can’t face the ugliness of life. They invent fantasy worlds to escape into. Torture works. Always has. Those who cannot handle pouring water on a terrorist’s face and depriving him of sleep do not deserve to survive as a civilization, and will not.

    • Winston Smith says:

      Are you a bot? You literally just repeated the same talking points, without responding to anything I actually wrote.

      Let’s take a look at your talking points.

      Q: “You can torture people into false confessions, but you can also torture them into telling the truth.”

      A: Exactly, so how do you know when you have legit info vs bogus info? Oh, right, you have to do actually investigative work. You know, how they catch rapists, killers, etc. Also, experts, studies and history show us that more often than not, you get BOGUS information. Almost no one who knows what they are talking about will refute this. Torture is about power, not about gathering actual intel.

      Q: “You also have no idea how interrogations are actually conducted. You think they grab some guy and shove food up his ass and ask ‘Where’s Osama!??'”

      A: Sadly, if you read the CIA report, your sarcastic response here is actually pretty close to the truth. That’s basically how it worked. There was no real process to determine who was being tortured, there was no real gathering of hard evidence, and the torture began almost immediately in many cases. We even tortured our own informants because we didn’t fact check.

      Q: “As I said, Saddam survived 400 coup attempts. All failed because those involved broke under torture.”

      A: Sources please. This is a gross exaggeration. Saddam actually survived more than 400 coups, but it was a large variety of factors that kept him in power. Saddam ruled with fear. Torture was used to make people submit. There is no evidence that shows that he was gathering large amounts of intel to go after specific threats. He’d go after large groups when needed in order to suppress people. It was about creating terror and keeping people down, not about gathering large amounts of accurate information. Of course, I’m repeating myself here. If you disagree, why not offer some actual proof that refutes the fact that Saddam ruled by using terror as a tool?

      Q: “The rest of your argument about how we’re “creating enemies” is a tautology. What do you suggest we do, have tea with them?”

      A: Maybe we should stop starting wars in the Middle East? On 9/11/01 we were attacked. It required a response. However, there was no reason why we should have been sucked into multiple wars in multiple countries that would span decades, kill hundreds of thousands, and cost trillions. There are many people in this country (yourself included) who want a never ending state of war. There are evil people all over the world. Dictatorships are found all across the globe. We can’t fight everyone at once. We are way too quick as a country to jump into full scale war. Even more ironic is often to fight the so-called “enemy” we have to partner up with other bad guys, like sending money to Islam Karimov who is just as bad as Saddam. Just look at Syria. You’ve either got ISIS or Assad’s government. Both are bloodthirsty power structures who only want to conquer, torture and oppress. The world isn’t a cuddly place of good vs. evil. It’s mostly people wanting power, and those who are going to be crushed. Thus we need to be very careful when we engage and when we decide to fight a war. If there’s no clear endgame, then we cannot win, we’ll just be stuck in an endless loop of death and destruction. We had no plan for what would happen after Saddam was removed from power, and this is why Iraq is worse than ever right now. George H W Bush was smart enough to avoid this trap, but his son walked right into it.


      A: Uh, what? I didn’t vote for Obama in ’08 or ’12. So what’s your point? Obama has been a terrible president, one of the worst we’ve had in a long time. He’s even worse than Bush (who I also didn’t vote for, either in ’00 or ’04). So basically what you’re saying is, you are a partisan hack who thinks the two party system is the only way, and you assume anyone who doesn’t think like you is automatically some extreme leftist who wants us to hug it out with the world? I didn’t vote for Obama! What Obama does is not on me. I think he should be impeached and sent to jail.

      People like you – people who dislike our constitution and due process and the bill of rights and our system of checks and balances – people like you will lose. Fascism is also destined to fail because once you run out of the ‘enemy’, you turn on yourself and start ripping yourself apart from the inside out. It doesn’t matter what you write here. It doesn’t matter how angry you get, or how much you convince yourself that you are right. History will bury your ideology and people will look back and shake their heads at folks like you*.

      Again, I’ll ask, how does it feel to be as wrong as wrong gets?

      *This is of course all assuming you’re not some copy/paste bot from or something.

    • Winston Smith says:

      How’s it feel to be as wrong as wrong gets? “Of course torture works. That’s why it’s been used for thousands of years.” Yes… as a ways to gain power and keep power. As a way to instill fear and terror and to rule others. That’s not with this is about. This is about getting actionable intel that helps to protect innocent lives. In that regard, studies, experts and history (plus common sense) show us that torture is not useful in any way. It takes good old fashioned investigative work. It takes intelligence. Of course, that isn’t as ‘sexy’ to people like you, and it doesn’t give you a false sense of power and righteousness. Just look at Stalin. The guy was paranoid. Thought everyone was out to get him. Some people were. So he’d bring them in, torture them, create a sense of fear and also a sense of absolute power that cannot be undone. But then he went too far. Started torturing his closest advisers for ‘information.’ One guy, who was completely loyal to Stalin, was tortured for days but kept telling the truth. He wasn’t part of a coup. Then they brought in his daughter, and began to do horrible things to her. And he talked, he admitted all sorts of things. How he was planning on overthrowing Stalin, and so forth. It was all lies, of course, because people will say anything to stop being tortured. And what happened with Stalin? Most likely he was poisoned. Guess torture didn’t work, except for creating fear and panic in others. He’s not an isolated case, either, this is just one example. Torture works for gaining power and oppressing others. It does not work for gathering legitimate intel on a regular basis. If you look at the report, even THEY admit that all the big breaks in cases didn’t come from torture. All torture does is give our enemies tools for their propaganda. Also scary is, for a supposed ‘free country’, no one is really talking about how we tortured innocent people… we even tortured our OWN informants. Besides the moral argument against such practices, this is also dangerous. Torture an innocent person and they likely will hate you. We’re just creating more enemies. Finally, I love how all the conservatives who hate wasted money aren’t taking issue with the fact that two people were paid 80 MILLION DOLLARS from our tax payer funds to devise this stuff. That’s an absurd amount of money. That’s the definition of wasteful spending. It’s clear that you guys don’t actually believe anything, because you keep changing your points of views and opinions when it suits you. I can respect anyone who is consistent, and you guys are anything but. It’s hypocrisy of the highest level. Remember the Hydra. Cut off one head, two more grow back. That’s what is happening in the Middle East. Remove Saddam, you get ISIS. If we defeat ISIS, then it’ll be someone else. We are stuck in a never ending loop until someone with some sanity decides it’s time to do things differently.

      • filmklassik says:

        Agreed. Confessions obtained under duress cannot be trusted. But let’s forget confessions for a moment. Just take them off the table.

        Because when it comes to obtaining certain types of information, torture works brilliantly.

        One example to illustrate my point: Let’s say I invaded your home, tied you to a chair and demanded to know the combination of your wall safe, and you refused to tell me. Do you honestly believe that given access to a box-cutter and your own exposed genitals, I wouldn’t have that safe open in less than 15 minutes?

        To ask the question is to answer it.

        Torture, my friend, works magnificently. And everyone, deep down, KNOWS that it works. But because it is fashionable now to hate it so much, we have agreed to pretend that it DOESN’T work.

        Anything to support the narrative, right?

      • YYYTR says:

        In trying to make coherence out of your post, I gather you think torture doesn’t work. You bring in the example of communists torturing people into false confessions. But your argument is a non sequitur. You can torture people into false confessions, but you can also torture them into telling the truth. As I said, Saddam survived 400 coup attempts. All failed because those involved broke under torture. The Gestapo used torture very effectively, hence the need for suicide pills. My only point is that it WORKS, and that a denial of that is a denial of reality. You have said nothing to refute it.

        You also have no idea how interrogations are actually conducted. You think they grab some guy and shove food up his ass and ask “Where’s Osama!??” YOur knowledge of interrogation methods is as extensive as your knowledge of history, which is to say you know nothing about it. The interrogators begin by asking a series of questions TO WHICH THEY ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWERS. The way the detainee responds (either truthfully or by lying) tells them whether or not their methods are working.

        The rest of your argument about how we’re “creating enemies” is a tautology. What do you suggest we do, have tea with them? It strikes me that you liberals have no solutions to anything.

        And anyway, the entire argument is completely moot. Because OBAMA RESTARTED RENDITION. He sends terrorists to other countries to get tortured, REAL torture, not sleep deprivation. Look it up. You guys don’t have the moral clarity to do your own dirty work.

  13. Jen says:

    I’m puzzled by the notion that entertainment for the masses is somehow to blame for the choices of powerful clandestine agents and politicians. People like 24 while also condemning the CIA’s interrogation methods because most people can understand the difference between fiction and reality. If the CIA is really using our love of Jack Bauer or James Bond as a blank check for cruelty, perhaps we should examine the sanity of them, rather than what’s on TV.

  14. John Shea says:


    (And asbestos for the Oval Office.)

  15. So, the conclusion is that Hollywood is not, in fact, liberal. There, sorted.

  16. DaPower says:

    The entertainment industry has principles? News to me….

  17. Alex says:

    There are people in Hollywood who want the town to make nothing but PC films and TV shows, but they’re dull. The reason many people wanted to boycotted “Zero Dark Thirty” was not because of the torture, but because it wasn’t the love letter to Obama they thought it would be. There was an episode of “Burn Notice” where Mike Weston was water boarded, the same people who bitched about it in “Zero Dark Thirty” said zip.

  18. Dave Smith says:

    For those who argue that torture (or even extreme interrogation – hard to call putting women’s panties on soeone’s head “torture” – unless you are a progressive Democrat!), watch the latest ISIS videos. Why do you think the captives kneel there and recite the ISIS prepared statements and then quietly wait as their heads are sawn off?

    My guess is that they have been tortured long and often enought that they will pretty much do or say whatever they are told.

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