Hollywood and the Bomb

Kate Folb on the delicate balance between education and entertainment


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“Audiences are not as dumb as you think they are,” said Kate Folb. “I’m sure everybody listening knows about some show you’ve watched or a movie you’ve watched where something was inaccurate and you are immediately taken out of the story.”

“You immediately go, ‘Eh, that’s not true,” Folb continued. “You might even change the channel, God forbid. You might turn it off, but you’ve certainly lost that connection.”

Ensuring shows keep that connection with their viewers is a big part of Folb’s job. She is the director of Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that partners with the entertainment industry to link screenwriters with the top experts on health, safety, and national security.

Some of that is appealing to Hollywood’s self-interest. “It behooves writers and producers to be as accurate as possible about science and medicine and health and nukes and all these things,” Folb explained, “as accurate as they possibly can be if they want to keep those eyeballs.”

“Now, beyond that, there are many writers and producers and even networks that really do care about their audiences and want to help impart information that might be beneficial to them,” said Folb. “So we provide a service - and it’s free to the entertainment industry - to help consult with writers and connect writers with experts who can come into the writer’s room and help them get it right.”

Last year, Kate Folb helped connect Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione with the producers of Madam Secretary, the hit CBS political drama which recently wrapped its sixth and final season. Cirincione, Jeffrey Lewis, and others walked the showrunners through what would happen if the White House believed the United States was under nuclear attack.

They ran this scenario on the season four finale, “Night Watch,” in which the president is alerted on a golf course that missiles are incoming and he has only minutes to decide how to respond. The critically acclaimed episode contained one of the most realistic depictions of the dangers of our nuclear posture.

“We have fourteen stealth subs, each with more than enough warheads to destroy Russia,” said Téa Leoni’s eponymous Secretary of State in a scene following the false alarm. “We have a hundred nuclear armed bombers. Clinging to the notion that we need to maintain ready-alert ICBMs — that means STRATCOM has three minutes to make the call to the crisis coordinator, who has two minutes to call the president. And then POTUS has five minutes to make a decision.”

“I mean talk about the vulnerability, it’s insanity. After what happened today, how can we come to any other conclusion?”

The episode might not have happened if Hollywood, Health & Society hadn’t played matchmaker between experts and screenwriters.

“It really starts with writers,” said Folb. “It starts with the script.”

Listen to the entire interview, including clips from “Madam Secretary,” on Press the Button.

To learn more about Hollywood, Health & Society — and how you can get involved — visit their website.

About Press the Button: In addition to "The Interview" in which Joe Cirincione sits down with prominent thinkers, legislators, activists, and grantees working on nuclear weapons issues for a short, illuminating conversation, episodes have two other segments: "Early Warning" — a round-up of the most pressing nuclear news in 7 minutes, roughly the same amount of time the US president has to authorize a nuclear weapons launch in the event of an incoming attack on the United States; and "In the Silo" — a monthly, close-up look at key nuclear issues and events around the world, utilizing field recordings, media clips, interviews, and extensive narration.



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