In Saudi Arabia, U.S. Movies And TV Shows Are Doing More To Prevent Jihad Than U.S. Propaganda

Even though I've been studying the new Wikileaks scandal in detail for a class I'm taking (and because it is a fascinating disruption of U.S. politics), I've found few intersections between the leaked diplomatic cables and what we do here at /Film. Until now.

According to Wikileaks cables, satellite broadcasts of U.S. TV shows and films are doing more to prevent Saudi youth from participating in jihad than U.S. government-funded propaganda.

The report comes from The Guardian via a leaked diplomatic cable entitled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence." According to the cable, uncensored American television, which is being broadcast on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 as part of their "war of ideas" against extremism, have been more effective curbing notions of jihad than the U.S.'s al-Hurra TV news channel. The latter has already racked up a $500 million tab for U.S. taxpayers, but doesn't seem to be able to have the emotional power of Desperate Housewives or Friends. According to two Saudi media executives:

It's still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana [a channel part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other US propaganda never could...Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.

Moreover, the cables have shown that American films can have a similar impact:

The diplomats told Washington that certain themes in American movies seemed to appeal to the Saudi audience: heroic honesty in the face of corruption (George Clooney in Michael Clayton), supportive behavior in relationships (an unspecified drama that was repeated during an Eid holiday featuring an American husband dealing with a drunk wife who smashed cars and crockery when she wasn't assaulting him and their child), and respect for the law over self-interest (Al Pacino and Robin Williams in Insomnia).

The fact that pop culture and entertainment trumps outright propaganda is a simultaneous affirmation of subtlety as the best plan of attack, and an indictment of government waste. We cover a lot of film and TV here at /Film, and while not all of the films end up being as good as we hope, it's nice to know that entertainment can be a force for good in the world. Sort of.