Confessions of a Hollywood Propagandist
KillingTheBuddha.com has been publishing on a shoestring — or less — for nearly nine years now, a miraculous feat of online longevity we’re celebrating in July with the publication of the second KtB book to manifest in print, Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith, a collection of KtB’s greatest hits mixed with all new material. “Greatest hits” isn’t quite right — Believer, Beware represents just one facet of KtB, personal essays, and, alas, excludes many of our favorites even in that category. So this summer we’re highlighting a piece from the archive every week.
This week it’s “Righting Waco: Confessions of a Hollywood Propagandist,” by Phil Penningroth (August 25, 2001). Back in the summer of 2001, when KtB was a new venture and none of us had yet published a book or a big magazine piece, we depended mainly on friends and friends-of-friends for material. So we were surprised when Penningroth approached us. Penningroth had seen 11 of his scripts produced as TV movies. Here was a man with a career as a creative writer! But it was the most recent of his successes that brought him to KillingTheBuddha.com: In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, an NBC movie about the deadly downfall of self-declared messiah David Koresh and his Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. NBC wanted the movie right away — as in, before the compound went up in flames. Penningroth delivered; and then, he lived to regret the tale.
By the time In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco aired on NBC in May, 1993, the siege of Mt. Carmel had ended in fire and Koresh and most of the Davidians were dead or in jail. Seeing Mt. Carmel go up in flames, I wept for those who died — I felt like I knew many of them personally. Meanwhile, the movie won the ratings war and was widely praised for its artistry and craft, especially my portrait of Koresh and Tim Daly’s performance as the “cult leader.” For me, such praise was a bitter reward. Watching the movie, I felt a strange mixture of pride and chagrin. By then I believed that what had been presented to the world as the destructive work of one crazed man and a bunch of zombies was really the collision of cultural forces. In our lust for money and fame, I believed that we had missed the opportunity to tell that larger, more important story. Sadly, in the end, I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do — written a movie that was both fast and good. But what did “good” mean? I had used my talent to create a drama so effective it convinced millions of people that the lies they saw on the screen were true.
A Hollywood screenwriter confesses his role as a propagandist on behalf of what would eventually be revealed as government incompetence on a murderous scale? Sounds like a story, right? And here was the man to tell it — not a conspiracy theorist, not even a muckraker, but the very perpetrator of the deed. So why was he coming to KtB?
Because nobody else was interested. Penningroth, and others, had been too successful. They’d built a near-perfect Buddha, a neatly contained story with heroes and villains and a tragic but inevitable conclusion, a story that contained all the answers to the questions it raised. Eventually, “respectable” journalists would validate the claims of right-wing anti-government activists, confirming that the government had, in fact, ignored its own best-informed personnel and then lied to the press about what had happened. But the press was no blameless victim. The Koresh story seemed to have it all — sex, violence, and rock n’ roll. Why ask tough questions, when everybody already just knew what the answers had to be? Nobody wanted to kill that Buddha, except Penningroth himself, a man determined to make what small amends he could for his part in the cover-up of a crime.
The more I came to know the Davidians as living, breathing human beings — even those who were dead, through the magic of tape — the more I realized how much damage I had done with the characterizations in the movie. This was brought home to me during a luncheon hosted by Clive Doyle and the surviving Davidians, a small number of old people, mostly women, and some mothers with young children who had left Mt. Carmel before the fire. We met in a Waco restaurant where the Davidians often gathered after church. They were kind, gracious and wary. In their presence I felt shame for what I had done, fear that they would condemn me and hope that somehow I could write something that would help change the public perception of what had happened at Waco. The night before I’d spent hours refining a speech to explain how I planned to artistically right the wrong I felt I’d done them and those who had died or gone to prison. Looking around the table, however, I knew art wasn’t the point. What could I possibly create that would ease Sheila Martin’s recurrent nightmare of her husband and two teenage children burning to death in the fire? How could anything I wrote replace Clive Doyle’s daughter, or bring back Irma Doyle’s only grandchild?
Read the whole story: “Righting Waco: Confessions of a Hollywood Propagandist.”
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).