Media & Marketing Security & Privacy

Snowden’s Exploits: Ripped from Prime Time’s “Scandal?”

34144I wonder if NSA leakmeister Edward Snowden watches the ABC prime-time drama “Scandal?” In particular, I’d be interested to know if he saw the episode entitled “Hunting Season” that originally aired last October, before Snowden went rogue. Why? Because that episode of the show—about the machinations of Olivia Pope, a gorgeous D.C. fixer extraordinaire—featured an NSA analyst who exposes a far-reaching domestic spying operation that permeates even the highest reaches of government.

For those of you who don’t count it among your guilty DVR or Hulu-Plus pleasures, “Scandal” is loosely based on real-life fixer Judy Smith, a former press aide in the first Bush White House. Today Smith runs a successful eponymous public relations firm, doing damage control for Monica Lewinsky, NFL quarterback Michael Vick, and Senator Larry Craig. TV Chef Paula Deen is Smith’s latest self-destructive client looking for rehabilitation. Last year Smith published the book “Good Self/Bad Self: Turning Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets” on crisis management. Given her C.V. and the lockdown she’s wisely imposed on Deen, I am not surprised she didn’t return my calls, emails, and direct tweets seeking comment.

In the past, Smith has spoken openly about her co-executive producing role on “Scandal” and how the show came to be. What was supposed to be a perfunctory meeting between Smith and “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes turned into a gab-session about the sordid lives of Smith’s clients and how she guides them through turbulent times. Rhimes wisely saw that she could do for Smith’s world what she had done for horndog interns on her long-running hit. It’s easy to imagine the pitch to ABC execs: “It’s ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ meets ‘The West Wing.’”

On “Scandal,” the Smith-based character Pope is having an affair with the sitting Republican President of the United States. The NSA leaker is a nervous sort, fearful that the NSA will one way or another do him in. Pope comes to believe he’s the real deal, not some crazy paranoid grassy knoll type, when he shows her evidence that the NSA has been bugging her late-night phone conversations with POTUS.

Super-fixer Pope gets the leaker booked in prime-time to be interviewed by a Diane Sawyer-type. Then the government, screaming “Patriot Act,” threatens to prosecute the network if it goes ahead with the embarrassing interview. The network’s president is about to relent, until Pope shows him purloined NSA video of his wife in their home complaining about their sex life. The network honcho then says government threats be damned, the interview will go forward.

One wonders if the NSA did any damage control in the wake of “Scandal” coming so close to reality. Back in 1998, the government did as much, as Frank Rich notes in a recent New York Magazine essay, when Gene Hackman’s NSA character in the movie “Enemy of the State” talked about his agency’s ability and willingness to spy on every aspect of American lives, with the complicity of the telecommunications industry, among others.

Despite presaging the protracted Snowden ordeal, the super sudsy “Scandal” has only an hour to resolve things. In the show the NSA leaker turns out to be a murderous spy who was using Pope’s associate Huck, a former CIA assassin with other-worldly hacking skills, to help break NSA code for sale to the highest bidder. Seeing she’s been duped by the leaker, Pope turns him in to the authorities.

Smith writes a blog on the “Scandal” website dubbed “What Would Judy Do?” where she describes how she would handle situations that arise on each episode.

Of the NSA episode she notes, “today’s age of information and access makes it harder to mask truths for too long,” but adds that the digital information age offers tools “to manipulate, build, and reinforce not wholly truthful images,” and that “perceptions and images” can be manipulated. She admits that a crucial tool in her fixer’s arsenal is to “help to control and shape those images.”

I doubt Smith wrote these as cautionary words, but it’s a good way to take them. Cheesy prime time soaps can entertain, but they also offer clues about how media manipulation works. Given Smith’s White House pedigree, she may be hinting at the dastardly stuff afoot in the dark shadows of our nation’s capital.

Powerful spinmeisters in the digital age have great tools at their disposal to change our perceptions. Courageous whistle-blowers can be quickly recast as traitors. Witness so much of the media spending more time analyzing Snowden’s motives than dissecting and reporting out the devastating information he has revealed. “Scandal” is chock-a-block with, well, scandalous behavior in that time-honored way. Still, at least in one episode fiction was predictive, and no stranger than truth.

You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.

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