AMERICAN IDOL AFTER IRAQ: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age

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Legendary Hollywood producer, Mike Medavoy, has teamed with Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspective Quarterly (NPQ), to produce a timely book about the use of soft power by America: "AMERICAN IDOL AFTER IRAQ: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age."

Gardel’s and Medavoy’s readable and yet comprehensive book explores the need to understand the effective use of power in an increasingly globalized world; the understanding of which has never been more pressing or pertinent, following, as it has, the increasingly negative perceptions of America’s policies abroad.

AMERICAN IDOL AFTER IRAQ also details the impact of American culture on foreign public opinion toward the United States. The authors do this by showing how American film, music and television, exported to all parts of the globe, penetrates global perception; often more than diplomatic efforts or military might.

They show, as only insiders can, how the media industry works; its motivations, the percentage of foreign to domestic consumption, and what must be done in the future to insure the proper use of the soft power that the access by their programs grant to them.

Gardels and Medavoy break this down into six key concepts:

1. Future conflicts will be about contending values in the global public square created by the media

2. Power lies with the image.

3. Because of its global reach, American popular culture is as much a player in international affairs as the formal institutions of American foreign policy:

4. In the global media age America must compete for hearts and minds.

5. Liberty is our message, but we are not the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.

6. Hollywood needs to educate as well as entertain.

With the power of imagery, the authors make the point that perception of media is based upon the culture background of the viewer. If the message is not one that confers dignity, it will be perceived to the negative. One example they cite is the reaction to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed that, while they might have seemed like a minor issue in Denmark, incurred rage across the Muslim world.

The authors cite other cultural examples; the Vatican’s response to the “Da Vinci Code,” the Chinese censoring media stories of Buddhist monks (only to find those same stories on YouTube).

With global reach in the media age, the authors present the importance of soft power, the ability of American popular culture, if used with accountability, to influence international affairs as much as diplomatic and military initiatives. And they warn that America, despite the increasing popularity of entertainment products, can no longer take such media hegemony for granted:

Prosperity and the spread of technology has enabled and empowered others to tell their own stories and put their own myths on the silver screen; the digital distribution revolution has democratized global information flows and diversified platforms to include not only TV and the PC, but also the cell phone screen. Increasingly, cultural flows are a two way street.

On the authors’ fifth point; the reference to liberty as our message (a side note on the quote itself: Liberty is our message, but we are not the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection" is a wonderful representation of the choice turns of phrases to be found in Medavoy and Gardel’s book) means that it is essential that those empowered to make the message understand the impact of that message in an increasingly globalized media world.

This leads to the sixth concept, that Hollywood needs to educate as well as entertain. To teach without being pedantic (to teach and not to preach).

That brought to this writer's mind "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD" as an example of a film that taught Americans about their own culture; not something everyone wanted to look at, but a fair and troubling bit of education that was also a fine piece of entertainment.

The authors point to the foreign market where there is a more subtle influence at play (from the book):

Often what foreign audiences learn is incidental—- the well appointed kitchen in the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show, the two cars in the driveway or kids with their own bedroom in such thrillers as “When a Stranger Calls” (an unimaginable amount of private space in most places in the world), the expectation of fair treatment under the law and the sincerity of weighing fairness and justice in “Twelve Angry Men,” the casual relationship between boys and girls as the backdrop to shows like “Friends” or even the most innocent Disney Channel shows like “Hannah Montana.” Sometimes films and television shows mislead outsiders about American life, for example by the near total absence of religious expression in mainstream entertainment, leaving impressions, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, far from the truth. This “second order” communication is often as powerful in the perception of the viewer as the first-order dramatic plot.

Medavoy and Gardels cite the need to utilize the power of imagery, not sugar coated – per se – but with understanding of the impact and the requirement to respectfully educate the world about America following the disastrous exchange of iconic imagery from the Statue of Liberty to the photos released from Abu Ghraib.

Some of the damage has been mitigated by the election of Barack Obama. The authors make the point that he cannot do it alone. The entertainment-media complex has far too much influence not to accept accountability for their impact and, with that in mind, Medavoy and Gardels present the role of the entertainment and media industry as an integral part of a coalition with the diplomatic and policy forces at work and why it is everyone’s responsibility, in a global age, to understand their impact on the world.

That they provide this in a well written, enjoyable and readable format is an added bonus to the important teaching (without preaching) moment that “AMERICAN IDOL AFTER IRAQ: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age” provides.


About the book’s authors: Mike Medavoy is an American film producer and executive, co-founder of Orion Pictures, former chairman of TriStar Pictures, former head of production for United Artists and current chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures. Throughout his career he has been involved in the creation of countless films, including sixteen nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, and seven winners.

Nathan Gardels is the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, Global Viewpoint and Nobel Laureates Plus, and has written widely for The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Harper's, U.S. News & World Report and the New York Review of Books.

AMERICAN IDOL AFTER IRAQ: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age,” is published by Wiley-Blackwell. (Amazon Link).

Link to editorial reviews.