Propaganda is almost as old as humanity itself. Ever since the creation of ancient states, rulers had to control the minds of the populace through various means in order to keep everyone going in one direction, thwart potential rebellions, and keep peasants at work, quietly taking whatever abuse they had to face, in the name of larger goals. More often than not, these goals were not beneficial to the people who were forced to endure the hardships of war, but rather pursued the rulers’ personal economic and political agendas (Saldin, 2012).
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Many thousands of years later, the legacy of propaganda endures. News travels quickly and can find its way to every house, every room, every eye and every ear. As it stands, the US military forces engaged in numerous small campaigns across the world, from Granada and Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and others (Saldin, 2012). The majority of the population believes in the causes preached by the media.
The causes, underlying motivations, and mechanisms of control are thoroughly showed in the movie called “Wag the Dog,” directed by Barry Levinson in 1997. The movie is dedicated to showing how fake news is made and what impact it could have on a country at large. It demonstrates the vulnerability and gullibility of the general public and the main operating tool of propaganda – the fact that nobody can confirm or deny a lie or truth. This falls back to the principles of propaganda coined by the Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie enough, and it becomes the truth.” The movie “Wag the Dog” is one of the most important cinematic works of the 20th century, as it greatly raised the political awareness of an average citizen not only in the USA, but also in the entire world, and is the first of its kind to lampshade the basic mechanics of media politics.
The Movie Synopsis
“Wag the Dog” takes place during a presidential campaign in the USA. Two weeks before the end of the campaign, the President is accused of raping an underage “Firefly Girl” during her visit to the White House. This story is reminiscent of the sex scandal between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski, which lead to his impeachment in 1998. In order to save the elections and his reputation, the President hires a spin director named Conrad Bean in order to find a way to distract the population from the scandal. To do so, Conrad Bean enlists the help of a Hollywood producer named Stanley Motts, so that they could stage a fake war with Albania.
The war was meant to happen only on screen, with no actual war happening in the country. The lie was supposed to be spread through large news channels and newspapers under governmental control, in order to create an illusion of a small victorious war. The plan involved numerous steps – fake news about a suitcase bomb found in Canada, fake footage of an Albanian girl with a cat running away from rapist terrorists (Levinson, 1997), the return of an American hero to the USA and his tragic death, faux-grassroots patriotic movements, symbols, songs, and a happy ending. The charade is successful, and the President is re-elected once more. The movie ends with a news bulletin in the background with reports of violence in Albania, though it is unclear whether the report is real or fake.
The Main Concepts Displayed in “Wag the Dog”
The main concept displayed in the movie is, of course, the concept of creation of Fake News (Grigore, 2012). When supported by the country’s biggest news-reporting agencies, the lie becomes the truth. The problem with fighting such a lie is that the lie has vastly more coverage than the truth. Without coverage, the truth will remain hidden, while the unwitting majority will still believe the lie (Bloch-Elcon & Nacos, 2014). In the movie, this is demonstrated numerous times. In the plane scene, Conrad Bean states that “during Reagan’s administration 200 marines were killed in Beirut, 24 hours later we invaded Granada, and that was their memo. Change the story, change the lead” (Levinson, 1997).
The “Suitcase bomb” scenario used as the premise for the fake war with Albania translates well into real life. This can be seen in regards to the invasion of Iraq. Despite the fact that it was proven that Saddam Hussein never had any biological weapons, never sponsored terrorists that attacked the USA, and never planned to launch any attacks on the country, the majority of American citizens still believe that the invasion was justified (Isikoff & Corn, 2006). In addition, none of the primary instigators of the conflict from the American side had ever faced court charges despite effectively invading another country and executing its leader (Isikoff & Corn, 2006). That demonstrates the power of the media and the long-lasting effects it has on the population.
The last issue that the movie involuntarily brings is the reporting ethics or lack thereof. The government uses the good cop – bad cop approach to controlling the media – buying off major news corporations and intimidating those who refuse to be bought. The problem with reporting ethics in this scenario is that following ethical standards can be dangerous for reporters, whereas as endorsing the lie will often lead to promotions and financial rewards (Bloch-Elcon & Nacos, 2014). This largely reduces reporting ethics to an ancient ruling that nobody who wants to get big in reporting business follows.
Mass Media – an Instrument of Freedom of Speech, or a Tool of Government Control?
America prides itself on its freedom of speech and having an “honest reporting media system.” However, it cannot be farther from the truth. The tremendous reach that modern Mass Media has can be used for both good and evil, spreading truths and lies. The fact that the majority of news agencies are corporate entities only adds to their potential for corruption. Corporations exist to make money above all else, and the government often presents itself as the greatest news buyer, wielding tremendous resources and being able to afford any lie as long as it fits their political agenda (Bloch-Elcon & Nacos, 2014).
Other political forces, should they be backed up by wealthy businesspersons, could also use Mass Media to propagate their agenda. Unless the truth is convenient or profitable, nobody wants it, as it would ruin relations with potential buyers, for whom that truth is inconvenient. When news reporting stops being a search for the truth, and becomes, as Conrad Bean says, “show business,” the greatest controversy about the media is born.
Cultural Impact on the Society
The impact of “Wag the Dog” on the society is tremendous. The movie does not have any particular target audience and is perfectly suitable for all viewers who know what the word “politics” means. It is a sneak peak under the blanket; it shows how politics are made, with all the important words and decisions made behind the scenes. It shows how gullible the population is, and how easy it is to manipulate public opinion using a basic set of symbols. Conrad Bean even cites them in his conversation with Mister Motts: “We remember the slogans, we can’t even remember the fucking wars. You know why? That’s show business. That’s why we’re here. Naked girl covered in Napalm. ‘V for Victory.’ Five Marines raising the flag, Mt. Suribachi” (Levinson, 1997).
The movie greatly contributed to the viewers’ awareness and understanding of what small victorious wars really mean. It is a powerful tool for enlightenment and education nowadays. During the American intervention in Kosovo, which, ironically, has a lot to do with diverting attention from the presidential campaign in America, the Serbian central TV stations broadcasted “Wag the Dog” across the world. Thus, the movie became a tool against foreign interventions done with an ulterior motive.
The movie “Wag the Dog” is, perhaps, one of the boldest movies ever created, as it touches the forbidden subject of real-life politics, propaganda, and Mass Media mind-control. As it shows, realities are often much less clean than the noble-sounding political slogans and symbols. It also shows us that dishonest people, more often than not, run the government, and use their power, finances, and positions in order to conceal their lies. The movie should be viewed as an introduction to a class in politics and Mass Media, as it predicted the development of many future conflicts for the next 20 years. Although the movie is fiction, the practices presented in it are not. It arms the viewers with the most potent weapon against propaganda – Knowledge. The tail should not wag the dog.
Bloch-Elcon, Y., & Nacos, L.B. (2014). News and entertainment media: Government’s big helpers in the selling of counterterrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 8(5), 18-32.
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Grigore, E.I. (2012). The art of simulation in literature and film production: white noise and “Wag the Dog.” Globalization and National Identity. Studies on the Strategies of Intercultural Dialogue, 126(5), 1265-1277.
Isikoff, M., & Corn, D. (2006). Hubris: The inside story of spin, scandal, and the selling of the Iraq war. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Levinson, B. (Director). (1997). Wag the Dog [Video File].
Saldin, R.P. (2012). Review: War, the American state, and politics since 1898. The Independent Review, 17(2), 301-304.