Propaganda in Television: Homeland, the CIA and America’s Venezuela obsession

HomelandHomeland lost its reason for existence at the end of season one as the Nicholas Brody, terrorist-or-not story was concluded. The show has become more and more ludicrous ever since; like 24 but with intellectual pretensions. It’s certainly enjoyable and exciting – for the most part – but it is nothing more than often repetitive entertainment.

The show’s most worrying flaw though, one evident since its first episode, is that it presents a version of the CIA and US foreign policy that is false and which reinforces a manipulative narrative disseminated by the American state.

It’s a narrative the US government wants you to believe; that the CIA is an ultimately moral organisation that kills terrorists only with a heavy heart, that the US kills children only as a result of horrible accidents, and that American foreign policy is motivated by a desire for peace rather than self-interest.

Season one of Homeland revolved around an American drone attack on a school in the Middle East, giving an illusion that the show is prepared to criticise US foreign policy. But this drone strike was shown as the actions of a handful of evil individuals: the bad guy Vice-President and the ambitious CIA director. In reality, such attacks are standard procedure. Civilian deaths are an accepted part of the US drone policy. The CIA knows they are killing children; they are okay with it.

Homeland wants us to think that it is neutral, that it is often critical of US foreign policy. But those criticisms are straw men brought up only to be easily knocked down, with the blame pinned on bad-guy villains rather than on a purposeful US policy. This is more dangerous than naked propaganda because naked propaganda is easy to dismiss. Homeland is insidious in its pushing of pro-CIA narratives.

In season three’s penultimate episode, CIA director Saul Berenson calls the Iranian military leadership ‘the single greatest threat to peace.’ Implicit in that line is the view that US policy in the region is motivated by establishing peace. Many would argue though that US policy is actually motivated by self-interest; by establishing supremacy and control of a vitally important region. These are two contrasting views, one held by critics of the US and one held by the establishment; the President, the politicians, the elites. It is problematic that such a successful TV show is promoting unchallenged the view of the latter.

Homeland Channel 4It also portrays the CIA as being a slightly flawed but ultimately moral organisation, doing all kinds of fantastic things to protect America. The CIA, in reality, is a very amoral organisation, to put it lightly. It has conducted mind-control experiments on American citizens. It has overthrown numerous democracies and propped up numerous dictatorships. It is not Carrie and Saul fighting the baddies.

Homeland’s biggest crime is omission. Carrie at one point in season three’s final episode tells of the evils of an Iranian’s actions during the Iran/Iraq war. She fails to mention, of course, America’s support of Iraq and its mass-murdering, ethnic cleansing dictator Saddam Hussein during that war. In another episode, the CIA received information from Yemen intelligence. Not discussed: the Yemen intelligence agency’s ‘serious human rights violations’, nor Yemen’s awful history of the same, including torture and unlawful killings.

It’s unintentional I’m sure, but Homeland is helping to blind many Americans – and non-Americans – to the brutal reality of US foreign policy. It promotes the agenda of the political establishment, and this happens a lot in US television.

American TV and Venezuela

There’s an episode of the American comedy Parks and Recreation in which a Venezuelan delegation visits the show’s characters, who all work in local government. The Venezuelans are shown as humourless and, to quote from the AV Club, ‘prove to be rude, arrogant and cruel. They treat [black-skinned] Tom like a native porter…and they constantly mistake the female employees of the Department for prostitutes.’

The American characters are shown as the underdogs, fighting against humiliation from the American-bashing Venezuelans, who try to bribe them into pushing propaganda for their country’s leader.

parks and recVenezuela is a socialist country which until recently was governed by Hugo Chavez, a democratically elected president whose polices to redistribute wealth have been heavily criticised. Chavez was anti-American, and believed the US tried to overthrow him in a coup, for which there is some evidence.

The US had a strange obsession with Venezuela under Chavez, due mainly to its oil wealth and socialism. When Homeland portrays the Middle East as hostile and scary you can understand it, given the legitimate threats to America that come from that region. But Venezuela? It is weird for a US comedy to suddenly decide to devote an entire episode to portraying Venezuelans as racist, bribing, misogynistic, arrogant and cruel. It should make you question why such hostility exists and why it is reflected unchallenged in US television.

You can argue that the US government’s hostile approach to Venezuela is correct and proper. I’m not disputing that. My argument here is that television shouldn’t be blindly promoting the narratives of the powerful.

And this isn’t an isolated case. Other US shows echo this hard-on for Venezuela. One episode of legal drama The Good Wife spent chunks of its running time mocking Venezuela and its leadership until near the episode’s end, at which point they dropped the mockery in place of criticism, portraying Chavez as an evil dictator. According to The Good Wife, Venezuelans are evil, absurd, or, like the only sympathetic Venezuelan characters in the episode, abused victims of a totalitarian regime.

This is the version of Venezuela the US government wants to promote. And it is thus the version US television illustrates. The US doesn’t want Americans to see South American countries which reject capitalism as working, fair, democratic regimes. And again, I’m not saying they necessarily are fair and democratic. And even if they are, I’m not arguing that the US government should change its approach. I’m arguing that US television shouldn’t by default be reinforcing the powerful narratives of rich, established vested interests, and unfortunately, that is what much of it is doing.

There’s a part two of this article about propaganda in British TV, but it will probably be the New Year before I get it written up.

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3 thoughts on “Propaganda in Television: Homeland, the CIA and America’s Venezuela obsession

  1. I don’t really watch any of these shows, but this was a thought-provoking article. I’m struck again and again by the conservatism and reactionism of much of popular film/tv. The last Bond film, Skyfall, was pretty full on in that regard. It’s pretty depressing when something like Parks and Recreation is doing it. I’ve only seen it a couple of times, but it seemed an inoffensive and well-meaning if not very inspired piece of comedy.

    I like your blog by the way, and I don’t think you’re being “overly critical” at all!

    • Cheers man, appreciate it. Parks and Recreation is usually pretty good; I really liked season two and three. It’s more a problem with American TV generally, and as you say, film (Zero Dark Thirty is another one that pushed propoganda).

  2. I am Venezuelan, and I felt particularly annoyed how my country is portrayed in the Homeland series. My feeling was that we are being “satanized”, for lack of a better word. The only thing that looked “Venezuelan” in the episodes I’ve watched so far is the panoramic takes. All the rest has nothing to do with Venezuelans.

    I remember a time when we were never mentioned on American TV or movies, which coincided with a time when Venezuelan policy never went against US interests. But ever since the Chavismo is in power and Venezuelan policy is divergent in relation to US policy, every time we are mentioned, we seem to be portrayed as some kind of rogue state and a mercenaries’ paradise.

    I don’t want to get into the political issues here, but I do find it dangerous that these false images are being seeded into the minds of Americans, as if preparing them to justify a future military intervention.

    I am very please that people like you take the time to write this sort of analyses. Thank You.

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