The movie year 2004 may be remembered as the year in which documentaries finally found mainstream acceptance. (Several of them, like Super Size Me and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster have already become unlikely box office hits.) More specifically, 2004 might be remembered as the year full of liberal documentaries. In addition to Michael Moore’s blockbuster Fahrenheit 9/11, we’ve also had the Clinton-defending The Hunting of the President and now Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. In this election year, it seems as though liberal filmmakers want to deliver a message that more than a few audience members are receptive to hearing.
A little bit of background is needed on this film. Outfoxed was primarily intended as a DVD. When it became available on Amazon.com, the disc quickly became its top seller, even surpassing advance orders for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Because of its popularity, the movie is now being given a limited theatrical release.
Director Robert Greenwald and his team monitored the Fox News Channel 24 hours a day for several months. What they saw did not surprise them: the channel very clearly seemed to deliver a partisan, pro-Bush message. There appeared to be a discrepancy between the way the news was presented and the channel’s trademark slogan: “Fair and balanced.” What did surprise Greenwald and company was that the message seemed to be pervasive. It was there not only in the softball treatment of Republicans and hardball treatment of Democrats, but also in such things as on-screen graphics and camera angles. President Bush, for example, was always shown looking heroic and patriotic, a flag often in the background. In contrast, the channel only ever seemed to use unflattering photos or video of John Kerry.
Through the use of round-the-clock recording of Fox News Channel, the movie presents a multitude of clips demonstrating the alleged bias. One of the more interesting, and potentially damning, elements is Fox’s continual use of the words “some people say” as an excuse to slide in subtle, unsubstantiated criticisms of Democrats – e.g. attributing their own criticisms to mysterious and unidentified others. There’s also a lengthy montage of Fox anchors and pundits – under the direction of the news director - using the expression “flip-flop” to describe John Kerry’s voting record. Fox commentators used the expression so much that it’s near impossible to brush off as mere coincidence.
Greenwald interviews former Fox News Channel employees, all of whom state that they were given explicit instructions to be soft on certain politicians. Internal memos, which appear on screen, prove that reporters were mandated to present stories in a very specific way. The owner of Fox News Channel is multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch who, among other things, owns 20th Century Fox movie studio. Murdoch is known to be a staunch supporter or Republican politicians, and Outfoxed makes a compelling argument that his channel was designed to reflect his views rather than to deliver “fair and balanced” news.
Aside from Murdoch, the big villain in Outfoxed is conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly. We see, at length, a reply of the interview O’Reilly did with Jeremy Glick, a young man whose father was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Glick, despite the manner in which his father died, has become an anti-war protestor. O’Reilly was visibly offended by the idea that Glick wouldn’t want to get revenge on the terrorists who were responsible for his father’s murder. So offended, in fact, that he treated Glick rudely, kicked him off the set, and then proceeded to distort the young man’s comments for months afterward.
Okay, so Fox News Channel has a conservative bias. That’s not exactly news to most of us. Watch it for half an hour and it becomes obvious. You could certainly argue that Outfoxed has an agenda too. The film was co-funded by Moveon.org, a liberal watchdog group. One of the DVD’s supplements is a behind-the-scenes featurette in which the volunteers who monitored FNC are interviewed. All of them proudly proclaim their liberal status and desire to slam FNC. Let’s face it: we live in a time when “fair and balanced” means “say things I agree with and don’t say anything I disagree with.”
So maybe FNC wants to make a counterpoint documentary. I’d be willing to see it so long as it was as compelling as Outfoxed. Although I would argue that the film doesn’t exactly tell us anything we don’t already know, it points out that the conservative bias is more pervasive than it seems. The film is certainly an engaging and entertaining look at how the network slants the news. Moreover, I think there’s an important message being conveyed here: you have to get your news from more than one source. The major point of Outfoxed is that one very rich man can create a whole network to espouse his political views and denigrate opposing views. People who rely only on Fox News Channel are not really getting the news at all; they are getting something that borders on propaganda.
Outfoxed manages to be political without being sanctimonious. In defending the humor in Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore joked that President Bush “had all the best lines.” That idea can be found in this film as well; rather than pontificating, Greenwald lets the FNC clips speak for themselves. And as the clips prove, the network has practically shot itself in the foot.
( out of four)
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism is unrated. The running time is 1 hour and 17 minutes.
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