At a time of comfortably embedded journalists, sly product placements, and pre-packaged video news releases, it's hard to separate the persuasion from the picture. The result is that the dissemination of innocent information becomes indistinguishable from the desire to indoctrinate. Is this something new? Not really.
Ever since the earliest days of cinema, social and political groups have been quick to recognize film's unparalleled power to persuade. Filmmakers are often called upon to “perpetuate the existing social ideologies of the time,” as film historian James Forsher has noted. Some of these acts of persuasion go unobserved because of their subtlety, but in periods of cultural turmoil, in time of war for instance, the motion picture medium has been mobilized to brazenly promote official agendas, propaganda loud and clear.
Assembled from Forsher's private film collection, this series about the many manifestations of propaganda begins with early Spanish-American War newsreels, an adjunct to the “yellow journalism” of the time, then looks at silent-era social dilemma shorts, rallying responses to the Depression, jingoistic efforts to support World War II, and promo spots for atomic energy; it ends in the early sixties with Jack Webb's surreal “red nightmare.” With Forsher as our guide through this tangle of intentional misinformation, tasteless stereotypes, treacly cheerleading, and political demonization, we're sure to emerge unscathed-at least that's what I'm told.
Film historian James Forsher is director of the Broadcast Production Program at California State University East Bay. He has written extensively on Hollywood cinema, with an emphasis on the Production Code era. His most recent book is The Community of Cinema: How Cinema and Spectacle Transformed the American Downtown (2003).