Investigative journalist Nicholas Schou’s “Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood” (Skyhorse Publishing) argues that the CIA still controls stories in the press, to an extent, and directly influences movies and TV shows that have espionage themes. Was Ben Affleck given special access to CIA headquarters in exchange for giving them the hero treatment in Argo? What happens to a journalist when he challenges what he’s been told by the agency? Schou interviewed former high-ranking agency officials, along with national security reporters, to give readers a front-row seat into the CIA’s relationship with the media since Carl Bernstein’s 1977 Rolling Stone expose.
WASHINGTON LIFE: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
NICHOLAS SCHOU: That the concept of national security and investigative reporting as something that’s an aggressive counterweight to official power is a myth. Watergate helped seal this [perception] in the minds of the public, but that was a long time ago. Readers need to understand that it didn’t last past the Reagan administration. And very quickly reporters were placed under a lot of pressure not to challenge powerful institutions too far. The American public is constantly terrified at the wrong things, which is exactly what the CIA and the rest of the national security state want, because it helps justify their existence.
WL: Was there anything that shocked you when you were researching this topic?
NS: I was shocked by the level to which the national security press is actually completely dependent on their intelligence sources for what they do. There were examples that were revealed in emails showing that reporters were effectively acting like they were working for the CIA and not on behalf of the American public by any means And also what surprised me was the way the CIA was very adept at playing reporters off of each other. Not only do they try to prevent stories from being written, they also know how to reward certain reporters who play by their rules. The most important takeaway to me is the level to which major media institutions are still quite willing to refuse to publish very important articles of the CIA or the White House for example, [if they] just tell them not to do it.
WL: You write about Hollywood being a “propaganda factory,” with films like “Zero Dark Thirty.” What kind of impact does that have on viewers?
NS: As a result of the Oliver Stone movie “JFK” in the early 1990s, the CIA realized that ignoring Hollywood and not having any direct relationship with the studios was not working anymore. So, they curated a public affairs unit with liaisons to Hollywood to see favorable depiction on screen …The show “Homeland” is a good example. The message is that she’s a hero, that we need people like her, no matter how run down she might be, in order to have protection from grave threats, and that’s this long-running theme that Hollywood and the CIA perfected. “Argo,” “Homeland,” “Zero Dark Thirty” are examples of the CIA working closely to help reinforce that message in the minds of the American public. The broader issue I explore with “Zero Dark Thirty” is that it basically sold the American public a version of how we won this major victory in the War on Terror that may in fact not be true.
WL: Do you ever get any feedback by people, saying “oh these are just conspiracy theories,” or that sort of thing?
NS: Yes, it’s a really fine line. It’s dangerous for any independent researcher looking into stuff like this, because all it takes is for people to just use that word and they can completely discredit your work. I find it frustrating because when you write about this kind of stuff you inevitably come in contact with people who are convinced that there’s some massive conspiracy that there’s no evidence for. I’ve done radio interviews for this book where I almost had to hang up the phone because it was clear that all the host wanted to talk about was how 9/11 was an inside job, and why didn’t I write about that? As a reporter, it’s important to just stick to what the evidence says and … not to be writing from a point of view where you’re trying to prove an agenda of any kind. I think I’ve been successful in avoiding that stigma because I’m very careful about what I report.
This interview appeared in the October 2016 issue of Washington Life.