|Director: Robert Greenwald|
|Screenplay: Robert Greenwald|
|Features: David Brock, Douglas Cheek, Robert McChesney, Jeff Cohen, Walter Cronkite, Al Franken, Brit Hume, Rupert Murdoch, Bill O'Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, Jeremy Glick|
|MPAA Rating: NR|
|Year of Release: 2004|
|Robert Greenwald’s grassroots documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, coproduced by MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, is a scathing indictment of the right-wing partisanship of the Fox News Channel, which nevertheless proudly waves its “fair and balanced” banner, apparently convincing millions of people of its veracity. Much like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, of which it will inevitably be seen as a smaller scale companion piece, Outfoxed is an open polemic, one that cries foul about Fox’s conservative biases not so much because partisanship is bad, but because Fox cloaks it in the façade of objective journalism when it is, in fact, little more than propaganda.|
Director Robert Greenwald, a veteran television producer and director who also made the documentary-polemic Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War (2003), takes a direct approach to his material, mixing clips of various hypermediated Fox News atrocities with commentary from scholars, pundits, and, most intriguingly, former Fox producers and newcasters who don’t have anything good to say about their former employer. For the most part, these talking heads pretty much tell us what we already know and what the clips show more pointedly, but some of the stories they tell are quite intriguing, particularly those about pressures from above to spin stories a certain way (such as a ludicrous fluff piece about Ronald Reagan’s birthday that was spun to make it look like there was a huge party at the Presidential library when in fact there just some school kids there on a field trip). Greenwald also makes a heated argument for the notion that Fox News’s early calling of a Bush victory in the 2000 election had more to do with his sitting in the Oval Office than all those debates about hanging chads and disenfranchised voters.
Greenwald takes full advantage of the persuasive power of editing, putting together montages from Fox news shows that cut out all the filling and show how the repetition of certain bits of rhetoric are used to confused the boundaries between fact and opinion. At other times, he just wants to point out how genuinely ugly Fox News can be. This is particularly true of his depiction of Bill O’Reilly, the ego-driven host of The O’Reilly Factor who is, as one pundit puts it, the summation of everything that is wrong with Fox News. If you walk away with one thing from Outfoxed, it is the security of knowing that Bill O’Reilly is surely the biggest jerk working in television today, particularly after watching his atrocious treatment of Jeremy Glick, a young man whose father was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who then had the temerity to sign an anti-war petition. What’s most disgusting about O’Reilly’s behavior is not his condescending rudeness and his repeated admonitions that Glick should “shut up,” but the fact that he invokes the young man’s dead father against him as if he knew him, which goes far beyond arrogance into simple cruelty. Never has O’Reilly’s egotistic chutzpah been so naked in its aggression, and frankly it’s a little scary.
Of course, like Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed will be most successful with those who already agree with its point of view. Those who genuinely think that the Fox News Channel is a source of reliable information will likely not be swayed, and part of this is the fault of the documentary itself. One of Greenwald’s chief flaws is that he gets so hyperfocused on showing us how awful Fox News is, he forgets to put it in any kind of historical context. There are some good points made about how Fox fits into the larger global-corporate worldview, but this serves chiefly as a scare tactic by suggesting that, at any given moment, Rupert Murdoch has three-fourths of the world’s population as his audience.
What the film needed to do better was place Fox News more squarely in the history of journalism, which prior to the 20th century made no attempts to be objective; it was William Randolph Hearst, after all, who helped initiate the Spanish-American War to get a good story. Yellow journalism, which is what Fox News is once you strip away all the fancy graphics and logos, has a long history in the U.S., and it would have been nice if the film had acknowledged this, rather than presenting Fox as some kind of aberration from the lofty, unquestionable journalistic standards by which everyone else apparently abides.
The bigger point is that Greenwald’s documentary is making an argument with which almost no one will disagree. Most avid Fox New Channel watchers I know don’t truly believe that Fox news programs are fair and balanced, even as they argue for their legitimacy. Rather, they see Fox as a corrective to the otherwise liberal news media. Of course, the idea that the American media are inherently liberal is one of the great myths of modern times, based mostly on statistics showing that the majority of journalists vote Democrat, which doesn’t take into account the idea that journalists are professionals capable of leaving their ideology at the door. Yet, Outfoxed doesn’t address this mindset at all, which hinders it greatly and makes it ripe for being discredited by its opponents. This is unfortunate because it’s an otherwise good documentary on a crucial subject that too many people don’t think enough about.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
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