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Film “Won’t Back Down” Models Hollywood Propaganda in Age of School Reform

(Image: 20th Century Fox)

Hollywood has a long legacy of operating as a marionette for the military-industrial complex and other reactionary causes, from attacking labor unions to vilifying domestic dissent as unpatriotic and communistic. Its engagement with right-wing causes is widely documented. For example, it is no secret that the Hollywood film industry used motion pictures as a propaganda weapon during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and every American war since then. And who can forget the lies told about Jessica Lynch in the two-star movie, “Saving Jessica Lynch” made in 2003 at the height of the Iraq war. The movie was pitched to the public as a true story, when in fact, it was pernicious mendacity falsely etched on celluloid.

Now, in the latest Hollywood fad, a slew of billionaire-funded, contemporary, anti-public-education films and anti-teacher films loaded with the faux struggles of celluloid characters, usually minorities battling against the “tyranny” of government schools, are being manufactured as entertainment propaganda.

To read more articles by Danny Weil and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

However, instead of being industry-funded and promoted in tandem with the government in an attempt to dismantle public schools, the new gaggle of anti-public education-films and even TV series are being funded and promoted in tandem with Hollywood by billionaires like Bill Gates.

“Won’t Back Down”

The latest Hollywood illusion, “Won’t Back Down,” surrounds the issue of the parent trigger laws which, in California and a handful of other states (Texas, Ohio and Connecticut), permit parents to go after “bad” teachers and even overrule administrators in bottom-ranked schools.

Ben Austin, a former attorney and employee of Green Dot Public Schools, a for-profit retail educational charter chain, is responsible for the idea and the trigger law. He has been a vocal advocate against public education under the auspices of choice, and has also been booted off the California State Bar – ironically, for failing to take a legal ethics course as required for his continuing education.

“Won’t Back Down” is a production of Walden Media, backed by the conservative-leaning billionaire Philip Anschutz. This is not Anschutz’s first debut into what are now called “education reform” films. Walden Media teamed up with Bill Gates and, not surprisingly, was among the financial backers of the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” another anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-public-education piece of Hollywood propaganda.


Then there is the film “Detachment,” another Hollywood movie aimed at denigrating public education.

“Detachment” premiered in April 2011 at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the film, a teacher at a public school is depicted struggling with an apathetic student body that has created a frustrated, burned-out school administration. The film fires a few deserved rounds at the boredom and isolation of modern education, but it is also clearly produced to strike a blow at the villainous public educational system.

The Cartel and

Still another film, this one blasting New Jersey public education, is “The Cartel,” which USA Today says, “takes on the ‘unconscionable failure’ of New Jersey’s public schools.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who took the office of governor of New Jersey in 2010, said the movie, “helped to mold for me the final outlines of what I wanted to do if I were lucky enough to become governor.”

“The Cartel” is a film by Bob Bowdon, wealthy entrepreneur and in-your face-libertarian. Now, with the pat on the back from the corpulent Christie, Bowdon has become even more emboldened. reports that Bowdon has created a new venture,, an investigative video web site dedicated to education reform “the way ESPN is dedicated to sports or Bloomberg to finance,” says Bowdon. The for-profit venture will get underway in early September of 2012. According to, it will “focus not just on stories of waste, fraud, and abuse but upbeat stories of innovation and success.”

“Bowdon argues that new media is the best way to tell the stories about the ways in which the old education establishment is being upended by forces of choice and competition, ” according to Reason.

This is all cleverly disguised as the war against market forces and indicates that plans to be an advocate and propagandist for libertarianism, market capitalism, anti-public school-teacher rhetoric, charter schools and private – yet publicly subsidized – voucher brigades.

Reality TV Comes to DC for Teacher Professional Development

Coming on top of all of these gloomy news updates is an additional news flash that the public school district in Washington, DC, has hired a reality television company to produce videos intended to improve the skills of its teachers. Yep, the 80 videos will be 5 to 15 minutes in length, and are being peppered with quick jump cuts for attention-grabbing purposes, polished screen labels and an upbeat soundtrack, no doubt to prevent slumbering.

Wouldn’t you know it, according to the New York Times, “The videos, financed by a $900,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, were developed as a complement to Washington’s evaluation system, known as Impact, in which teachers are judged on student test scores and classroom observations.”

Education is now being transmogrified into professional infantilization through commercialized entertainment paid for by billionaires at a time when the divide and distinction between TV, Internet and Hollywood movies is rapidly fading.

Big Fish and Former PBS Producer to Join the Privatization of Professional Development

But there’s more! A former PBS staff member jumped into the billionaire Hollywood entertainment mosh pit as well. Kaya Henderson, Washington, DC, schools chancellor and supporter of charter schools hired Judith Stoia, a former producer with a PBS affiliate in Boston and the team joined with Big Fish, a local independent production company, to create Reality PD (the PD stands for professional development).

Big Fish says it is an independent production company that creates visually driven documentary, format and reality programming for broadcast on a host of new cyber-outlets. Now the company will buttress its resume for future profit extraction purposes and embark on making “teacher development films” for mandatory screening and viewing – all at taxpayer expense.

Hollywood’s Sordid Role in Foisting Propaganda on an Unassuming Public

The history of Hollywood and its use as a tool for propaganda has been documented for close to a century. As early as 1914, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), also known as the Creel Committee, organized publicity on behalf of US objectives during World War I. In a 1920 memoir, titled “How We Advertised America,” CPI head and journalist George Creel wrote about the use of propaganda and selling the war to the American public: “In all things, from first to last, without halt or change, it was a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.”

To accomplish the goal of vilifying the Germans and gaining buy-in for the war, Creel specifically “reached out to the entertainment and advertising industries,” thereby “developing a complex, sophisticated and diverse array of propaganda techniques,” according to SourceWatch.

For example, in his rush to manufacture consent for the war by managing public perceptions through visual representation:

  • Creel recruited filmmakers to produce pro-war silent features, with titles such as “Pershing’s Crusaders,” which were shown in theaters around the country, often to the accompaniment of pianos in the movie houses thumping out patriotic songs. Silent movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin addressed crowds of thousands at war bond rallies.
  • The Creel committee also issued more than 6,000 news releases and 200,000 “lantern slide” propaganda shows.

Early Hollywood and the emergence of the film industry were happy to be on board to advertise and sell World War I to an unsuspecting American public. Working directly with the government offered the rising industry legitimacy. This legitimacy was needed after a 1915 Supreme Court case, Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, in which movies were legally deemed to be a business and not an art. This ruling had important legal ramifications, for it meant that Hollywood had no protection under the First Amendment.

With the end of World War I, the rise of Prohibition, the intensification of industrialism and changes in cultural life in the early 20s, the public began protesting the immorality of the new modern film industry. The tempo of the times intensified the problem that the Supreme Court ruling in Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio represented for Hollywood: the court decision offered them no protective legal canopy.

In 1922, as a response to public outrage at perceived moral turpitude and attacks on conventional norms, The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, headed by Will Hays, promised to reinstitute conventional morality into the principled fiber of the movie industry, mainly through the Motion Picture Production Code, created in 1930 and also known as the Hays Code.

As a result, the Production Code was promoted by the movie industry as a self-regulating measure to keep the government from trying to shut down or regulate the entire burgeoning multimillion-dollar enterprise. Yet behind the scenes, the government, in conjunction with Hollywood moguls, quietly, secretly and indirectly controlled the content of Hollywood films using the newly coined Production Code criteria as their guidelines.

In fact, during World War II, the government would extend its ties with Hollywood and begin working even more directly with the movie industry to send very specific messages into the public consciousness for propaganda purposes.

The Hypodermic Needle Theory of Propaganda

The core assumption underlying the use of Hollywood and propaganda films during the 1940s and 1950s was known as the hypodermic needle theory. This theory suggested that corporate media could influence large groups of people directly and homogeneously by “shooting” or “injecting” them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response. During the 1940s, several factors arose which contributed to this theory of propaganda, including:

  • The fast rise and popularization of radio and television.
  • The emergence of the persuasion industries, such as advertising and propaganda.
  • The Payne Fund studies of the 1930s, which focused on the impact of motion pictures on children.
  • Hitler’s monopolization of the mass media during World War II to unify the German public behind the Nazi party.
  • The assumption that people are passive and are seen as having a lot media material “shot” at them, and therefore end up thinking what they are told is true due to the fact that there is no other source of information.

During World War II, the Office of War Information tightly regulated what information about the war was released to the public. Then there was the Bureau of Motion Picture Affairs, a government agency that directly worked with Hollywood, setting up censorial guidelines such as “Will this picture help win the war?” These standards helped decide which movies could be most beneficial to the American war effort and thus, could be produced and distributed.

Newsreels, along with featurettes, were developed by Hollywood as part of an entertainment-propaganda package that accompanied a feature film during the war years to promote ideological adherence to the official war message. These were twice-weekly newsreels produced by five major film companies in conjunction with the Pentagon, and they were, for many millions of Americans, the only news they had about international affairs or the war. (Some of the more vitriolic of these newsreels and featurettes can be seen here).

Movies released during World War II also carried the message of anti-Japanese propaganda, or “yellow journalism.” The movies were designed to expose the viewer to the terrible the sacrifices that American soldiers suffered in the face of the onslaught of the “Japs.” (You can see a sample of the slides here).

The film “Japanese Relocation,” a film the Office of War Information made in 1942, was, a group of Berkeley student researchers found, an example of:

A propaganda film designed to show the co-operation and satisfaction of the Japanese American internees in terms of being relocated, re-employed, re-educated and interned.”

This film pushed the idea that America was being fair and balanced; that the American efforts were good for the Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. It is another example of blinding American citizens from the realities of the war, in an effort to keep the public quiescent and accepting.

Hollywood’s involvement in supporting gross violations of civil liberties by the government was notorious during the cold war, and McCarthyism was carried out in concert with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the FBI and the CIA. (The following site contains a list of selective filmography of motion pictures that played a role in fueling the Red Scare during the cold war and in propagandizing the threat of Communism to America.)

Moving the clock forward, even as late as 2008, the movie “Iron Man” was released to put lipstick on the Air Force. In the first three weeks of its release, “Iron Man” – a film produced by its comic-book parent Marvel and distributed by Paramount Pictures – raked in a staggering $222.5 million in the United States and $428.5 million worldwide.

As Nick Turse wrote at TomDispatch at the time the film was released in 2008:

[T]he Pentagon is managing to keep a steady stream of pro-military blockbusters in front of young eyes during two dismally unsuccessful foreign occupations that grind on without end.

Today, almost everywhere you look, whether at the latest blockbuster on the big screen or what’s on much smaller screens in your own home – likely made by a defense contractor like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic or Toshiba – you’ll find the Pentagon or its corporate partners. In fact, from the companies that make your computer to those that produce your favorite soft drink, many of the products in your home are made by Defense Department contractors.

Hollywood Stands to Make a Lot of Money in the Emerging Privatized, Financialized Landscape of Education

Hollywood billionaires are seeding a new form of the corporate newsreel and using the hypodermic needle theory of propaganda to cultivate anti-public education sentiment in the minds of working people, and especially minorities and people of color, some of those hardest hit by a deteriorating educational system. Hollywood sees dollar signs in the post-public-education economic landscape and the $600 billion in public education funds.

Robert F. Bruner, the Dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, was quite candid in his recent comment about the blossoming future role of entertainment companies and Hollywood: “Venture capitalists and other ‘smart money’ are pouring into the online aggregators because higher ed looks like a replay of what happened in the music and filmed entertainment industries: disintermediate the incumbent distributors and gain rights to distribute the content that someone else paid to develop.”

Bruner just announced a partnership to place UVA courses online, and he recently stated what Hollywood and many who are moving toward cyber-“learning” are thinking:

“Production values” will make online ed expensive to produce. The production of an online course is rapidly moving beyond the use of a stationary video recorder capturing a professor in a lecture hall. It is already clear that there is an arm’s race on the basis of quality. Look for three-camera shoots and creative directors coming to campuses soon. You’ll need scripts, a production crew, interactive capabilities, and a sound studio.

In the new golden age of educational-technology start-ups, another venture corporation has jumped on the Hollywood chow wagon. The company is 2tor. 2tor’s capital investments pay for web platforms that allow students to attend online classes with their professors in real time, but another portion of the company money bankrolls the company’s course videos, which feature high production costs.

While shooting videos for University of Southern California’s online social-work program, for example, 2tor hired professional actors and got buy-in from professors to help re-enact and dramatize meetings between social workers and their clients. With faculty members shaping the script, the slick videos were said to have brought to life the clinical scenarios that students typically only read about.

Finally, Yahoo Finance recently announced that: “Kaplan Kids, which offers personalized online learning programs for students in kindergarten through 8th grade in math, reading and writing, has signed on to become an official sponsor of Disney Live!, a series of high-quality, interactive touring theater productions featuring Disney-themed stories for families with young children. Disney Live! is produced by Feld Entertainment, Inc., the world’s leading producer of live family entertainment.

All this is an attempt by Hollywood and the entertainment industry to market the scurrilous for-profit Kaplan regardless of its notoriously low standards, commodified education offerings, countless government investigations and serial negative publicity.

The Rise of Education as Mass Propaganda in the New Gilded Age

In 1952, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell warned the American public that the subject that would be most important politically in the future would be mass psychology. The importance of mass psychology and the role of propaganda have enormously increased thanks to the growth of modern visual methods of propaganda. As Russell noted, “of these, the most influential is what is called ‘education.’

This is why the new Gilded Aged billionaires are investing their capital into powerful Hollywood films and videos that contain images intended to demonize and decimate public education and teachers. Like their robber baron predecessors, these well-heeled social engineers know the art of skilled manipulation works on an uncritical public with the right hypodermic needle – intended to chloroform rather than inform. Hollywood and the new world of entertainment is now perched on the precipice of huge profits if they can privatize and financialize education. The social and financial stakes are enormous.

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