Publicity photo of the witty, charming guys and gals who
run the world and recite propaganda in "The West Wing"
Entertaining Propaganda
In 2001, Swedish Public Television began broadcasting a lavishly-produced series from the United States entitled ”The West Wing”, which depicts how a gang of intelligent, good-looking, witty and charming individuals manage the USA’s and the

entire world’s affairs with great commitment and a deep sense of justice. The programme is very well-made and entertaining-- and it includes a considerable amount of propaganda which is commented upon in the following, somewhat abridged e-mail correspondence between NNN’s co-ordinator and the responsible programme-buyer at SVT (whose name is not relevant in this context). Note the shift in attitude that takes place between 6 December 2001 and 5 February 2002.

Subject: ”The West Wing”
Date: 6 Dec. 2001
From: Al Burke, NNN
To: ”The West Wing’s” buyer

SVT’s programme information service has referred me to you with some questions I have concerning the series, "The West Wing", which is currently being broadcast on Channel 2.... Please point me in the right direction if I come to the wrong place.

I have now seen a couple of episodes of "The West Wing" and must say that it is a very entertaining and well-made programme. Unfortunately, it must also be said that it includes large quantities of propaganda and historical falsifications whose effect, if not whose intent, is to justify the USA’s violently imposed world hegemony.

In the most recent episode, for example, we were informed that the Vietnam War was started by ”North” Vietnam when it launched an unprovoked attack on a U.S. warship in the Tonkin Gulf. Of course, the truth is just the opposite: As even the responsible government officials have since admitted, it was in fact the USA that started the war. Its warship had participated in a series of attacks against Vietnam, and the incident in the Tonkin Gulf was a hoax that had been prepared long in advance by the U.S. government as a pretext for launching its devastating bombing war.

I know this, as do probably others among SVT’s audience. But how many are familiar with this history, especially within younger age-groups? It would be easy to find out with one of the viewer surveys conducted that SVT is said to conduct on a regular basis.

There was also a somewhat confused account of the USA’s involvement in Columbia. Nevertheless, the message seemed to be that the superpower is carrying out an honourable campaign against an evil narcotics mafia which, to judge by this episode, includes the entire liberation movement-- pure propaganda, in other words.

Hence, my first question: Is it appropriate for our public service channel to transmit this sort of propaganda by the world’s only remaining superpower without the slightest effort to protect its audience from its influence? It might conceivably be useful for educational purposes, i.e. in combination with unbiased commentary which explains how reality is distorted to suit the USA’s interests. But to simply transmit the propaganda is to make SVT a component of the USA’s worldwide propaganda apparatus-- no doubt about that.

I would also argue that the standard distinction between entertainment and news/documentaries has no significance in this context. It has long been known that propaganda which is cleverly woven into entertainment is at least as effective as that which is conveyed by news programmes. Often, it is even more effective, since in that kind of packaging it operates at a subconscious level....
Finally, I would like to know if SVT is prepared to open up for a public debate on this problem.... Again, it is a question of balancing the propaganda with reliable information based on known facts and conditions. In many cases, the Vietnam War for example, it is simply a matter of recalling what the U.S. government and its officials have already admitted or disclosed.

I would very much like to have answers to these questions.

Date: 7 Dec 2001
From: ”The West Wing’s” buyer
To: Al Burke, NNN

Thank you for your thought-provoking and interesting letter concerning ”The West Wing”. It is quite correct that the series is the responsibility of SVT’s Acquisitions Department and myself. I wish that I had the time to provide an immediate response to your important viewpoints. Unfortunately, this is my last day before taking a four-weeks’ leave, and I am therefore unable to deal with these issues just now. But I should be able to get back to you after 8 January 2002 and, in the meantime, I will share your e-mail with my colleagues.

Subject: ”The West Wing” forts.
Date: 25 Jan 2002
To: ”The West Wing’s” buyer
From: Al Burke, NNN

As the 8th of January has come and gone, I am naturally curious to know if and when you plan to continue our discussion of "The West Wing". While waiting for your response, I have asked several contacts in the USA if there has been any kind of debate concerning the programme. The following reply from Norman Solomon, one of that country’s foremost media critics, is fairly representative:

Thanks for your note. I've seen "West Wing" a couple of times. I found it nauseating because of the way it promotes myths of the well-meaning American presidency while posing as a critique of hard-boiled compromise-driven politics. I haven't seen a thorough critique of the program, and I certainly haven't watched it enough to write one. So far, haven't found the time or stomach for it.
Best wishes,
Norman Solomon

Subject: The case of Haiti
Date: 4 Feb 2002
To: ”The West Wing’s” buyer
From: Al Burke, NNN

From John Pilger’s column in today’s edition of Aftonbladet: "The former dictator of Haiti, General Prosper Avril, liked to display his bloody torture victims on TV. After he was overthrown, he was flown to Florida by the U.S. government and granted political asylum.”

Please compare this account with ”The West Wing” episode a few weeks ago, depicting the USA’s efforts to defend democracy and human rights in Haiti. To anyone familiar with Haiti’s real history-- British author Graham Greene, for example-- it was grotesque.

Please read Pilger’s entire column-- and reply to me, as promised.

Date: 5 Feb 2002
From: ”The West Wing’s” buyer
To: Al Burke, NNN

I thank you for your e-mail and, following my long absence from work, beg your indulgence for the lengthy delay of my response which is as follows:

SVT’s programme information service routinely conveys viewpoints on programmes to those concerned with a daily summary, the purpose of which is to provide information on viewpoints from the public, not to encourage every individual producer to respond personally. Some questions call for simple factual information, and it is one of my duties as a programme-buyer to supply it.

Why the information service conveyed your viewpoints directly to me, and not by means of the daily summary, is a question that I cannot answer. My guess is that they felt that your opinions were so specific and thought-provoking that the programme-buyer ought to consider them. Now I have so that. But they can hardly have promised you an ”answer” in the sense that I would engage in a polemical debate concerning the fictional message in ”The West Wing”. In our judgement, the series was well worth purchasing and presenting to the Swedish public. Our right to edit programmes is limited to elements that imply a violation of our broadcast regulations, for example those regarding gratuitous violence, incitement to hatred of ethnic groups, etc.

If one assumes that SVT otherwise follows the regulations, we normally choose other means of balancing the contents of a programme than what you are suggesting, i.e. to follow up individual episodes or feature films with commentary. For SVT, it is the diversity of impressions that provides a balanced view of the world. One may also note that it is, of course, very good if a critical debate is pursued via other media, such as radio. Naturally, I would not wish to defend every single segment of a fiction series as being historically accurate. Neither has SVT in any way tried to conceal the fact that this programme is a U.S. commercial product. . . .

Subject: The case of Haiti
Date: 5 Feb 2002
To: ”The West Wing’s” buyer
From: Al Burke, NNN

Thank you for your reply. It turned out to be as expected.

I would like to point out, however, that I never expected you to ”engage in a polemical debate” on these issues. I have merely followed the programme information service’s advice to contact you, and then awaited the discussion promised in your e-mail dated 7 December 2001: ”I wish that I had the time to provide an immediate response to your important viewpoints…. I should be able to get back to you after 8 January 2002. ”

But there has not been any discussion-- only a bureaucratic counter-move which completely ignores the ”important viewpoints” conveyed in my ”thought-provoking and interesting letter”, as you expressed it two months ago.

Once again, it is discovered that ordinary citizens are permitted exactly no opportunity to pursue a dialogue on these important issues with those who hold the power over words and images, not even where our so-called public-service media are involved. The lack of openness is almost complete….

The only appropriate response is for SVT to assume its responsibility to the Swedish people by ceasing to function as a channel for the superpower’s cleverly manufactured propaganda, and by opening up for a genuine dialogue on this important issue. The ”balanced view of the world” to which you refer exists neither in this case nor in Swedish media, in general….