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BY MIKE DORNING Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – Jack Bauer, the fictional
counter-terrorism agent on the Fox Network’s popular
“24” show, hasn’t actually waded into the debate on
civil liberties versus terrorism surveillance as
Congress considers making changes in the USA Patriot
Act.
But in the midst of the most recent episode of the
white-knuckle TV drama, viewers in the nation’s
capital saw a message drawing on the show’s themes
that was intended to influence real-life political
debate in a highly unusual way.

During a commercial break while the fictional Bauer
was desperately searching for canisters of deadly
nerve gas that had fallen into the hands of
terrorists, viewers saw an advertisement questioning
the wisdom of real-life senators who would “weaken”
the Patriot Act. “What if they are wrong?” the
commercial asked.

It marked a blurring of Hollywood fantasy with
political reality that represented a sharp departure
even in the no-holds-barred world of political
campaign advertising.

Moments before on the TV show, Bauer had just gained a
crucial lead on the nerve gas after threatening to cut
out the eyes of a turncoat White House aide who was in
league with the terrorists.

The ad, which may air again during future “24”
episodes broadcast in the home states of Republican
senators who have raised questions about the Patriot
Act, is an unusual example of an interest group so
closely meshing political persuasion and fictional
entertainment.

“The producers of this ad are playing off fictional
fears to create pressure for their point of view on
legislative reality,” said Peter Hart, a
Democratic-leaning pollster. “I think it’s unique.”

The maneuver comes at a time when American culture
increasingly confuses the boundaries between fact and
fiction and between politics and entertainment. Author
James Frey made up significant parts of his popular
drug-addiction memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” and
Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s most popular talk show
host, initially defended him for it. Comedy shows
masquerade as newscasts. And comedian Stephen Colbert
has popularized the word “truthiness,” defined as
concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather
than actual facts.

Political consultants and campaign analysts contacted
on Wednesday said the placement of the Patriot Act
commercial on “24” could well be a sign of things to
come.

Some political consultants see the thematic tie-in of
the Patriot Act ad as a logical extension of the
concept of product placement, an increasingly common
practice in which manufacturers pay to insert their
products into movies or television shows.

“What you’re seeing is a bit of the future. I think
you’ll see more blending of messages,” said Evan
Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media
Intelligence/CMAG, a media research firm specializing
in politics.

The Patriot Act commercial was paid for by an ad hoc
conservative group whose public supporters include
many prominent former Bush administration officials
and is housed at a hawkish Washington think tank, the
Center for Security Policy.

The group, the Coalition for Security, Liberty and the
Law, includes among its public supporters former
Attorney General John Ashcroft; former Solicitor
General Ted Olson, whose wife died in the Sept. 11
attacks; and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General
John Yoo, who wrote a since-repudiated legal memo
arguing that President Bush was not obliged to follow
international conventions against torture.

Just last week, Bush met at the White House with a
17-member group sponsored by the coalition to discuss
efforts to extend the Patriot Act. On Wednesday, the
House agreed to extend the law until March 10 so
negotiators have more time to come up with a deal on
civil rights protections.

Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official
who helped organize the coalition, said the group
hopes to raise $100,000 to air more commercials.
Gaffney, a former deputy to prominent neo-conservative
Richard Perle, plans to target the home states of
Republican senators who are pressing for more civil
liberties protections in the Patriot Act and who
represent sparsely populated areas where television ad
rates are less expensive. Alaska, Nebraska and New
Hampshire are likely targets, he said.

He said the coalition would like to air the
commercials during episodes of “24” or other shows
that touch on terrorist themes, such as “E-Ring” or
“Commander In Chief.” But he said the coalition also
would consider such venues as local news and Sunday
morning talk shows that advocacy groups have
traditionally targeted for political advertising.
“`24′ is the best and most obvious place to put this.
My hope is that we’ll be able to put it there in other
markets,” Gaffney said. “We thought you could hardly
find an audience that was more appreciative of the
threat posed by people who are trying to kill us than
the devotees of `24.'”

The ads feature Debra Burlingame, sister of one of the
pilots of American Airlines Flight 77, which was
hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on Sept. 11,
2001.
In the commercial, Burlingame says that the Patriot
Act “gives our government the tools” to stop
terrorists, but some senators believe they can “safely
weaken” the law. She urges viewers to press for
extension of the law as the words “What if they’re
wrong?” and “Our lives depend on it” flash on the
screen.


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