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reviewed by Jesse Walker

 

August 16 , 2004 | "Ronald Reagan's birthday was, for Fox News viewers, something akin to a holy day," says former Fox anchor John Du Pre in Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. "So my assignment was to go to the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and to do live shots from before dawn until dark." It was a tough assignment, because there wasn't much to report: There weren't many people around, and the closest there was to an organized celebration came when a visiting fourth grade class sang "Happy Birthday."

The higher-ups were not pleased. "They saw my first two or three live shots," Du Pre recounts, "and [news chief John] Moody called in to say, 'What is he doing out there?' Apparently, my live shots weren't 'celebratory' enough." As a result, Du Pre claims, he was suspended.

Outfoxed is one of those documentaries that's most convincing when it's telling us things we already know -- in this case, that Fox blurs the line between the news pages and the op-eds, and that the channel tilts heavily to the right. Viewers interested in seeing those familiar points illustrated with amusing, horrifying, and sometimes deeply strange anecdotes might enjoy the film, which includes several stories like Du Pre's. There is also an already-infamous segment -- perhaps the best part of the movie -- in which Fox's Carl Cameron and future president Bush chat awfully amiably before an interview during the last election; Cameron's wife, we learn, was working for the same campaign her husband was covering. And the film offers a solid summary of the Jeremy Glick affair, in which Bill O'Reilly, the buffoonish host of The O'Reilly Factor, "interviewed" a young man who had both lost his father on 9/11 and subsequently signed an antiwar petition. O'Reilly berated Glick rudely and, when the segment was over, he threw him out of the studio; afterwards he told progressively less accurate descriptions of what had happened until, 11 months later, he was claiming his guest had accused the president of "knowing about 9/11 and murdering his own father." (Glick had said no such thing.) The latter tale was well known before the movie came out, but Outfoxed does a good job of stitching together a tight and damning account of it.

Interspersed with this are arguments that are somewhat less impressive:

Author John Nichols makes the bizarre claim that Fox News, by being the first channel to prematurely call the 2000 election for Bush, "had more to do with making George W. Bush president than any recount or ballot design issue."

A montage of Fox personalities dissing John Kerry mixes reporters with commentators without telling us which is which. If you want to demonstrate that Fox is biased when it's pretending to be balanced, it doesn't do much good to show us the archconservative columnist Cal Thomas accusing Kerry of being a liar. No one expects Thomas to be objective.

David Hnatiuk, formerly Fox's music supervisor, complains darkly that the "Fox News alert," a flashy announcement that breaking news is about to be reported, was invented to lead in dispatches from the Columbine massacre but now announces trivial stories about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. It's not entirely clear why this is mentioned at all. I suspect the filmmakers think we're being conditioned to mistake Bennifer for an important story while Bush and his cronies get away with murder. To believe that, though, you have to believe that viewers take the "Fox News alert" music and graphic at face value, as opposed to seeing it as just another overwrought cable news tick.

But the biggest problem with the movie is its message. "My criticism of Fox News isn't that it's a conservative channel," the leftist media critic Jeff Cohen declares at one point. "It's the consumer fraud of 'fair and balanced.'" The filmmakers seem to believe that the great American hordes take Fox's "fair and balanced" slogan at face value. In the DVD's behind-the-scenes featurette, a woman involved with the production says that "watching Fox...has totally convinced me that the media is owned by these people and they're brainwashing the American public." It's much more likely, though, that the only people who believe Fox is unbiased are those who already share its biases. The rest of us wouldn't be surprised if Brit Hume's job was elevated to a cabinet-level position.

The more interesting issue is not the influence Fox has on its audience, which is small as well as self-selecting, but the influence it has on other media -- and, through them, on their audiences. There's two ways a rival channel can adopt the Fox model of openly opinionated news: to simply copy Fox, right-wing obsessions and all, or to counterprogram from another political perspective. The film includes an example or two of the first approach, but it does not make a case that such copying is prevalent. Meanwhile, it suggests that counterprogramming isn't going to happen, thanks to "the corporate ownership of the other channels"; it punctuates the point by looking at Phil Donahue's short-lived show on MSNBC. "By the end of our tenure, balance [wasn't] enough," one of Donahue's former producers remembers. "And this is the Fox effect. They mandated that if we had two left-wing guests, we had to have three right-wing guests."

But even if you accept the idea that large corporations will never underwrite radical criticisms of the status quo -- an assumption that isn't necessarily true, to judge from the music industry -- there's still a significant ideological territory to the left of Fox and to the right of Noam Chomsky. Maybe MSNBC is too spineless to create a Fox News for liberals, but it's early, and other broadcasters could still fill the gap. Already, Comedy Central has had tremendous success with Jon Stewart's liberal (and frequently excellent) Daily Show. (Not that Comedy Central's talk shows lean uniformly to the left. The channel is also the home of the uneven but entertaining Tough Crowd, whose conservative host Colin Quinn is smarter and funnier than any of his counterparts on Fox.)

There's one more model for counterprogramming: Outfoxed itself. As a movie, it isn't much to write home about -- it's amateurish without being edgy, with a style that at times resembles a low-budget corporate video. Worse yet, it sometimes feels as crudely manipulative as the channel it's critiquing. (It's fine to show us John Moody's sometimes damning memos to the Fox staff. But do you have to read them aloud in that ridiculous faux-sinister voice?) Yet while the film is mediocre, its distribution model is inspiring. Before it was released to theaters across the country this month, over 50,000 copies of Outfoxed were sold on DVD. Thousands of activists bypassed the multiplexes entirely by screening the picture at house parties. Such grassroots networks -- along with the Internet, micro radio, and other outlets for low-budget alternative media -- are accessible to people of all political philosophies.

That's welcome news for anyone alienated from both the party-line Republicans of Murdoch's news channel and the party-line Democrats of MoveOn.org who financed this film. In the '90s, Fox was a scrappy muckraker and MoveOn was a rigid defender of the White House. Under Bush, the positions have reversed. Those of us who try to stay skeptical no matter who's in power should be grateful for the expansion of media options that's given us both Fox and Outfoxed.

bio:
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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