John Kerry goes to Hollywood for help countering ISIS

Story highlights

  • Secretary of State John Kerry meets with studio executives on ISIS
  • Hollywood, government cooperation a long-standing practice

Washington (CNN)The Obama administration is taking its fight against ISIS to Hollywood, consulting with some of the world's best storytellers for tips on how to win the battle for hearts and minds.

Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with executives from Tinseltown's major studios on Tuesday, declaring it "good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter #Daesh narrative" in a tweet using an Arabic acronym for the group.
The outreach is part of a revamped administration strategy to counter ISIS's magnetic pull for some young people in the Middle East and beyond, working with local partners, establishing a new Washington-based communications center and, now, drawing on the deep well of movie maker experience.
    "Hollywood does have this expertise and can share it with credible Islamic voices against Daesh, such as clerics and young filmmakers," said Richard Stengel, the State Department's under-secretary for public diplomacy.
    "Hollywood can help optimize what they do and told us they are eager to do so," he said. "They have audiences in these places and would like to help. Hollywood is a very powerful voice."
    In 90 minutes of give-and-take, Kerry exchanged ideas with Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and other top representatives from studios such as Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures. Chris Dodd, Kerry's former Democratic ally in the Senate who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America, also attended.
    According to a senior State Department official, the executives told Kerry they would help with expertise and partnerships, including creating joint content, but stressed that it was crucial that work be done in the region and not from the U.S.
    They also emphasized the power of documentary, telling Kerry that messages have to be simple and resonate viscerally.
    And they got into the nitty-gritty of spinning a good yarn, saying that the essence of a good story is a hero. They pointed out that a huge challenge is the lack of heroic Middle East leaders who can inspire change and encourage people -- a vacuum ISIS is ably exploiting.
    Inside 'Argo' with the real hostages
    Inside 'Argo' with the real hostages

      JUST WATCHED

      Inside 'Argo' with the real hostages

    MUST WATCH

    Inside 'Argo' with the real hostages 03:41
    Hollywood has a long history of coming to Washington's aid to sell American values abroad and counter enemy narratives, intentionally and not. In World War II and during the fraught Cold War, TV and movie studios churned out dramas, thrillers and even comedies that both promoted capitalist, democratic ideals and warned of the perils of fascism and communism.
    Some of this work was done in close partnership. Makers of the 2012 film "Argo" consulted with diplomats and the intelligence community to tell the story of a CIA operative's successful scheme to free American hostages in revolutionary 1979 Iran. That agent worked with Hollywood veterans to set up a fake Hollywood production company and pretended to scout locations for a big-budget sci-fi epic.
    "The State Department's work with Hollywood fits into a much larger historical picture and jigsaw," said Tony Shaw, a historian who studies film and propaganda at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England. Shaw noted that the CIA has had a liaison to Hollywood since the 1990s to help on films such as 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty."
    Hollywood's expertise in crafting a storyline appeals to the Obama administration, which has struggled to counter ISIS's sophisticated use of videos, imagery and online media. Washington has sought to limit the group's ability to reach into the homes of potential recruits, such as the couple responsible for the killings in San Bernardino, California, through platforms including Twitter and Facebook.
    An initial effort to fight the group online was housed at the State Department and produced tweets and foreign-language material, an information war effort that was widely criticized as being superficial and ineffective. It's unclear at this point whether the new approach will assuage those critics.
    But William McCants, who helped set up the office in 2010 as an anti-al Qaeda effort under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, defended the first undertaking.
    "In English it became unfairly characterized as 'tweeting at terrorists,' but a lot of their better stuff was not in English and targeted at people who were not already terrorist sympathizers," said William McCants, currently the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Washington's Brookings Institution.
    McCants said that one key challenge is measuring performance.
    "At least Madison Avenue execs can point to product sales to justify ad campaigns," McCants said. "But if you're trying to persuade people not to do something, what possible metric could there be?"
    'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy
    'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy

      JUST WATCHED

      'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy

    MUST WATCH

    'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy 04:34
    In January, the administration announced it would shift the State Department's focus to supporting regional groups and governments in the pushback against ISIS. The new Global Engagement Center has set up a messaging center in the United Arab Emirates and is planning other outposts in Malaysia and Nigeria.
    The details of exactly what kind of content will be produced have not yet been worked out, as the program is still in early stages. Though State Department officials have previously sought advice, Kerry's visit this week indicates the increasing seriousness of the effort.
    Lisa Monaco, Obama's adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said that efforts to rebut extremist messaging "will be the most effective when they focus on amplifying authentic voices from at-risk communities, religious leaders and former violent extremists."
    Obama, who hosted an international meeting on countering violent extremism in September at the annual U.N. General Assembly, has asked Congress to allocate money for the center's operations in the next fiscal year.
    The President told his fellow leaders in September that it wasn't going to be enough to defeat ISIS in the battlefield.
    "Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they're defeated by better ideas," Obama said, "a more attractive and compelling vision."
    Monaco said that an important part of that work would involve working "in close collaboration with the private sector, particularly media and technology companies. We need to enlist the help of our most innovative minds in our shared goal of protecting our nation."
    Kerry's visit with Hollywood executives was just the administration's most recent pilgrimage to California's brain trust. Administration officials consulted with executives from Google, Twitter and other tech companies when they were reconfiguring the State Department program.
    And in early January, Obama's attorney general Loretta Lynch, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey visited with leaders at Apple, Facebook and YouTube, among others, to discuss a collaboration against militants. That effort has run into roadblocks, particularly with efforts to have tech companies such as Apple cooperate on altering encryption that would allow law enforcement and government agencies to monitor communications.