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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