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Profile: Bertram van Munster
Bertram van Munster was a participant or observer in the following events:
Jerry Bruckheimer. [Source: Thomas Robinson / Getty Images / Forbes]ABC airs the first of a six-episode reality series entitled Profiles from the Front Line, which purports to document the war in Afghanistan from the soldiers’ point of view. It was conceived and produced with the extensive help and oversight of the Pentagon. [Chicago Tribune, 2/26/2003] Filming for the show began in May 2002. [Los Angeles Times, 2/6/2003] ABC executives say that the show will tell the “compelling personal stories of the US military men and women who bear the burden of the fighting” in Afghanistan. The series was quickly approved by Victoria Clarke, the head of the Pentagon’s public relations office (see Early 2002 and Beyond), and by Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, the public relations commander of US Central Command. Clarke and Quigley granted the series producers unprecedented access to the troops, technical advice, and even the use of aircraft carriers for filming. In return, the Pentagon received the right to review and approve all footage before airing (in the interests of national security, Pentagon officials said). [Rich, 2006, pp. 32-33] The Pentagon denies that it asked for any changes in the series’ broadcast footage. [Washington Post, 3/9/2003]
Producers Insist Show Not Propaganda, No Censorship from Pentagon - Though the show is widely considered to be tied in to the Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq (some question the fact that the show was shelved for months before suddenly being approved just as news of the impending invasion began hitting the news), series producer Bertram van Munster says he came up with the idea after 9/11. “We were all kind of numb, I certainly was extremely numb for two or three weeks,” he will recall. “And I said I’ve got to do something.” Van Munster and his co-producer, famed movie and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer (an acknowledged Bush supporter best known for his action-film blockbusters such as Top Gun, Black Hawk Down, and Pearl Harbor, as well as the CSI television series), put together a proposal that van Munster says does not necessarily support President Bush’s war plans. Instead, he says, the show is intended to personalize America’s fighting forces. “There’s nothing flag-waving about death. We have people getting killed on the show,” he says. “In many ways, I see this thing as much anti-war as it is a portrait of what these people are doing out there.” Bruckheimer insists that the Defense Department did not exercise any censorship whatsoever except in minor instances, such as the withholding of a Special Forces soldier’s last name. “They didn’t use any censorship whatsoever,” Bruckheimer says. “They were very cooperative.… They were very receptive to the concept of showing what US forces were doing in Afghanistan.” The show’s own film, shot on location in Afghanistan, is bolstered by Defense Department footage. [Los Angeles Times, 2/6/2003; Chicago Tribune, 2/26/2003; Washington Post, 3/9/2003; Progressive, 4/1/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 32-33] The Progressive’s Andrea Lewis calls the show “reality television, war movie, documentary video, and military propaganda all rolled into one.” Other critics call it “a Pentagon infomercial.” Bruckheimer denies that the show is propaganda, but admits that he ensured the show would present the positive face of the military: “Put it this way. If I were to rent your apartment, I’m not going to trash it. It wouldn’t be right. So I’m not going to go and expose all their blemishes.” [Progressive, 4/1/2003; Television Week, 7/14/2003]
Documentary or Reality TV? - Chicago Tribune reviewer Allan Johnson writes of the first episode: “Stirring orchestral music and editing, framing and [quick] pacing… succeed in instilling enough patriotic feelings so that Bush should give the producers a cheer. Which raises the question of whether such advocacy is appropriate in these sensitive times.” The first episode provides what Johnson calls a reflection of standard reality-show characters: the serious-minded father figure (a captain who commands 150 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division); a gung-ho aircraft mechanic who tells the camera that the terrorists “had better be ready for some payback, and it’s going to continue until we end it;” a roguish Special Forces sergeant who says his job is to “find and kill all al-Qaeda;” the stockbroker-turned-soldier whose wife weeps uncontrollably as he leaves for Afghanistan; and others. One soldier says with a smile, “I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be than right here doing my job, knowing I’m doing my part to keep America free.” Lewis calls the soldiers who are profiled for the series “good looking, articulate, and enthusiastic about what they’re doing… archetypes of characters you’d expect to see in a big-budget Bruckheimer film.” Answering the question of whether the show is reality television or straight documentary, Bruckheimer says, “I think it’s a little bit of both.” Van Munster adds: “I think documentary and reality are actually brother and sister. And it’s also cinema verite.” [Chicago Tribune, 2/26/2003; Progressive, 4/1/2003] Others disagree. “It raises all sorts of questions, which are exacerbated by the entertainment factor,” says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “One check on war news becoming propaganda is the professionalism of journalists, which will be ostentatiously lacking.… Documentaries are inherently more informative than entertainment. ‘Reality’ programming turns the tables.” [Los Angeles Times, 2/6/2003]
Journalists Shocked at Wide Access Enjoyed by Show's Producers, Camera Teams - Many war correspondents are shocked at the level of access, and the amount of cooperation, between the Pentagon and ABC, especially considering the difficulties they routinely encounter in getting near any battlefields. Even a complaint from ABC News regarding the show’s broad access as contrasted to the restrictions forced upon their reporters is rejected by ABC’s parent company, Disney. “There’s a lot of other ways to convey information to the American people than through news organizations,” Quigley says. [Rich, 2006, pp. 32-33] Lewis writes: “During the months when Profiles was filmed, ‘real’ journalists weren’t allowed anywhere near the front lines, and news organizations had to survive on a limited diet of highly coordinated military briefings. Meanwhile, Profiles camera crews were given nearly unlimited access to US soldiers in Afghanistan.” CBS anchor Dan Rather says: “I’m outraged by the Hollywoodization of the military. The Pentagon would rather make troops available as props in gung-ho videos than explain how the commanders let Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders escape or target the wrong villages.” [Progressive, 4/1/2003]
Show Used to 'Train' Pentagon for Embedding Journalists in Iraq - The Pentagon’s project officer for the series, Vince Ogilvie, later says that the interactions of the Profiles film crews and military personnel provided “a prelude to the process of embedding” media representatives in military units for war coverage in Iraq. The series had a number of different crews in different military units over its shooting schedule, Ogilvie will say: “Though they were not reporting on a daily basis, they were with the unit—living with the unit and reporting on what different individuals or units were involved in. With each passing day, week, month came a better understanding.” [Washington Post, 3/9/2003]
Show Not Renewed - The show will do extremely poorly in the ratings, and after its six-episode run is completed, it will not be renewed. [Rich, 2006, pp. 32-33] Van Munster will become involved in a shadowy Pentagon-driven project to document the Iraq occupation, of which little will be known. A Cato Institute official will say of that project: “This administration is fighting a PR battle over weapons of mass destruction and whether we’re getting bogged down in a quagmire. So maybe they want to frame their own message and own history about their time in Iraq.” [Television Week, 7/14/2003]
Entity Tags: American Broadcasting Corporation, Allan Johnson, Andrea Lewis, Cato Institute, Bush administration (43), Craig Quigley, Bertram van Munster, Robert Lichter, Jerry Bruckheimer, Dan Rather, Vince Ogilvie, Victoria (“Torie”) Clarke, US Department of Defense
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, War in Afghanistan
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