In a country where separation of media and state is so valued, should a TV network allow a government agency to have an editorial role in how that agency is portrayed on the air?
The question is raised by the input and support CBS has accepted from the Central Intelligence Agency in producing its new weekly drama about the CIA, "The Agency," which premieres in September.
One wonders if CBS executives remember "The FBI," the dramatic series starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. that was one of the great feats in propaganda history. Week after week for nine years, it presented an unvaryingly upbeat -- and largely distorted -- portrait of a highly ethical, non-politicized institution keeping America safe from internal and external enemies. It was a portrait jointly shaped by ABC, a private network, and the FBI, a secretive government agency that had say over scripts and story lines.
Each episode displayed the FBI seal and thanked director J. Edgar Hoover for his cooperation. As far back as the newsreels of John Dillinger's capture, Hoover knew that polishing the Bureau's image through the mass media was a key to ever more power and more funding.
After "The FBI" went off the air in 1973, Congressional hearings and Freedom of Information lawsuits revealed that -- during the nine years of sanitized hero-worship on ABC -- the Bureau was systematically abusing the First Amendment rights of countless civil rights and peace advocates, from grass roots activists to John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. "The FBI" offered no episodes about that FBI.
Zimbalist and his TV cohorts waged war against organized crime, but in the real world, the FBI's efforts were half-hearted at best. In 1968, for example, when activist/comedian Dick Gregory made a speech denouncing the Mafia as "snakes" for importing drugs into the inner city, J. Edgar Hoover reacted by trying to provoke the mob into retaliating against the comedian. Hoover wrote that the FBI should develop "a counterintelligence operation to alert La Cosa Nostra to Gregory's attack on LCN."
Those dozen words shed more accurate light on the character and activities of the Bureau than all the weekly ABC episodes that year.
Apparently unconcerned with this history, CBS's "The Agency" has invited the participation of the CIA, an institution with a history at least as controversial as the FBI's. The CBS project readily won the support of the CIA and its public liaison officer with Hollywood, Chase Brandon, whose job is CIA image-enhancement.
A decade after the collapse of our Soviet enemy (which the CIA largely failed to predict), positive media presentations can help sell the public on the need for the CIA and its estimated $30 billion price tag. Each week "The Agency" will glorify CIA officers who save the world from Arab terrorists, drug-runners, kidnappers and assorted cutthroats.
A new ABC spy series, "Alias," has also received some CIA assistance, but Brandon refused requests to help two forthcoming CIA-related movies -- one starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt , another starring Matt Damon -- because he deemed them insufficiently positive: "If someone wants to slander us," Brandon told the Washington Post, "it's not in our interest to cooperate." Echoes of J. Edgar.
After meeting the creator of "The Agency" and reviewing scripts, Brandon granted unprecedented CIA support for the CBS series because "it would show our spirit, patriotism and dedication." As the New York Times described, CBS was even allowed to shoot parts of its pilot at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, using off-duty CIA employees as extras. For interior sets in Los Angeles, the CIA has provided agency seals. "Much to the delight of the agency," the Times reported, "CBS clearly has become an agency booster."
Series creator Michael Beckner explained CIA involvement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "[The series] is not going to demonize them...What attracted them to cooperating with us is the fact that we want to tell stories about the lives of the people that work there."
Producers say the CIA will have input on scripts but not script "approval." Executive Producer Shaun Cassidy commented on the CIA's script involvement : "Their support is a strictly case-by-case basis. If they don't like the script, we won't have their support that week."
But should network TV producers be showing scripts to a government agency in hopes of getting its support? And if a series is that cozy with its subject, how much integrity can the program have?
In recent years, the CIA has worked hand-in-hand with brutal regimes and armies. It has helped overthrow elected governments. CBS knows it will abruptly lose its access and support if "The Agency" focuses on the CIA's less savory activities or blunders.
As long as CBS and the CIA remain wedded, don't expect a hard-hitting episode on the agency's alliance with the corrupt, often-brutal military in Colombia. Or on the CIA's past links to terrorists like Osama bin Laden now protected by the Afghan government. Or on the agency's role in the bombings of the Chinese embassy in Serbia and the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
In other words, expect far more fiction than fact.
A version of this appeared in Newsday (9/4/01).