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"OutFoxed": How Rupert Murdoch Is Destroying American Journalism

A review of Robert Greenwald's new documentary investigating the Fox News Channel.
 
 
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As "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's powerful indictment of the Bush Administration, is influencing millions of Americans in the heartland, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," a devastating new documentary that exposes Bush's biggest cheerleader opens this week in New York and San Francisco and will be featured in thousands of house parties across the country, sponsored by MoveOn.org on Sunday, July 18th.

"Outfoxed" demonstrates in painful detail how one media empire, making full use of the public airwaves, can reject any semblance of fairness or perspective, and serve as the mouthpiece of right-wing conservatives, fully relishing its role. Media critic Jeffrey Chester describes the Fox News operation most succinctly in the film: "Fox News Channel is a 24/7 commercial for the conservatives and the Republican Party."

Produced and directed by veteran Hollywood filmmaker Robert Greenwald, "Outfoxed" puts on the screen, for the first time ever, a gaggle of former Fox producers, reporters, writers, and bookers who provide rich background to life within the Fox media empire, particularly how they were forced to push a right-wing view or lose their jobs.

Fox's hypocrisy in the wholesale undermining of journalism for political purposes was a major motivation for Greenwald to make the documentary. "I hope the film can serve as a catalyst to break the silence about Fox News," says Greenwald. "Virtually all journalists know that it's a sham, that their trademark 'Fair and Balanced' is a lie, and that in addition, Fox is leading the charge to dumb down the news, and to spend less and less money on news coverage, and bleed it for every possible dollar of profit... which relates to the larger theme of the film: corporate control of the media and the problems it brings up for a democracy."

The film takes risks and breaks new ground, as Robert S. Boynton in the New York Times Magazine reports: "No one has made a documentary about a media company that uses as much footage without permission as Greenwald has, and the legal precedents governing the "fair use" of such material while theoretically strong, are not well established in case law." The legal strategy, should Fox sue, is still evolving, but Greenwald's legal team includes the brilliant theorist Lawrence Lessig and Chris Sprigman, a fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

Greenwald took a unique approach to making his documentary. He put together a team of media volunteers enlisted via MoveOn.org who monitored Fox News 24 hours a day for months, and reviewed every show to demonstrate its model for spreading the same propaganda comprehensively throughout the network's programming. A special "behind the scenes" portion of the "OutFoxed" DVD highlights their work. (Greenwald's Fox News monitoring team continues to follow and document the network's bias.)

Relying on the work of his tracking team, Greenwald's documentary provides the viewer with a primer on propaganda techniques, documenting how the underlying goal of creating fear and uncertainty in the minds of viewers is achieved by use of language and repetition.

The documentary deconstructs Fox's hot button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, the constant presence of God in the political context, and the march to war in Iraq, and how these are seamlessly inserted into the language, the visuals, and the emphasis throughout the day. One of the most powerful motifs in the film is Greenwald's effective use of leaked "theme of the day" memos apparently sent daily by John Moody, a senior vice president for news. These memos provide the framework for the spin on the news by the overall news operation. One memo warned: "Do not fall into the trap of mourning U.S. lives." Another says of the Falluja seige: "It won't be long before some people start to decry the use of excessive force. We won't be among that group."

"Outfoxed" demonstrates how the message of the day gets repeated hundreds of times by the anchors – virtually by rote – which must be an affront to all who want to make up their own minds about current affairs. And Greenwald proves pretty clearly that critical thinking is not what Fox News is about.

The documentary portrays Fox News' top host Sean Hannity as a bully, and its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, a consistently documented liar with an anger problem. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, Jeremy Glick, a son of a worker killed in the World Trade Center disaster, appears as a guest on O'Reilly's show and takes him on, refusing to buckle in to his berating. O'Reilly invites "liberals" on to his show to turn them into punching bags, but in this case, when the plan goes astray, he loses it, threatening Glick with outlandish accusations, and then pulling the plug on his microphone.

Al Franken does a funny bit on the possibility of suing O'Reilly for libel for distorting the character of Glick's comments in later episodes. Franken suggests that Reilly lies pathologically, and that lawyers have told him that it would be harder to sue for defamation if someone already has a record of outrageously lying. Interestingly, in 2003, Fox brought suit against Franken and his publisher, EP Dutton/Penguin, for allegedly infringing on Fox's three-word trademark "Fair and Balanced." The offense? Franken's book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" (which attacked Fox), was subtitled "A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

However, when Fox appealed for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin refused the request – adding that he found Fox's lawsuit to be "wholly without merit, both factually and legally." The judge also said that "[f]rom a legal point of view, I think it is highly unlikely that the phrase 'fair and balanced' is a valid trademark. I can't accept that that phrase can be plucked out of the marketplace of ideas and slogans."

Walter Cronkite heads a stellar group of more than a dozen media critics in the film, ranging from cranky Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders to David Brock, the right-winger gone good, who offers some interesting insights regarding how the conservative media echo chamber works. Professor and media critic Bob McChesney also makes a strong on-camera impression and Jeff Cohen, who was a producer for the Phil Donahue Show, talks about how the "Fox effect" – the temporary success of the ranting right-wing television model – moved MSNBC to the right. Cohen, who has had his share of experience on "Firing Line" and other shows, demonstrates his on-air savvy in "Outfoxed."

Over and over again, we hear and see the overwhelming evidence that Fox is a propaganda machine. But the question remains: What can we do about it? In the last section of the documentary, Greenwald's media experts offer potential solutions, and have high hopes, but in the face of the powerful Fox critique, the solutions do not hold up as realistic. Many take heart in a revitalized "media reform" movement in the country, and in the fact that some part of the public clearly is unhappy with the media system. But at the same time that system is evolving into more and more ways for people to get their news – an increasing number go to the Internet (these, incidentally, are the best informed news consumers), and some young people claim that they learn the most from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Greenwald personally feels that "various forms of independent media must continue to push the edges, go for the innovation, and from that will come audience... the more the primary media goes conglomerate... the more opportunities there will be for independent media and other points of view."

On the policy front, media reformers will continue to lobby, file law suits, and fight admirably to slow down the consolidation juggernaut, as they did recently when a Philadelphia Court decision told the Bush-controlled FCC that it had gone too far in further consolidating an already centralized media system. But this decision had little impact on Murdoch, and there seems to be no viable path to put Murdoch's propaganda machine on the skids.

In the context of what to do now, one contrarian point to consider is that the influence of Fox News may be exaggerated. Do we run the danger of making Fox News appear more powerful than it is? The mainstream media has accepted and promoted Fox's dominance of cable news, but a closer look is needed.

For example, O'Reilly's show (or Larry King's for that matter) would be cancelled in a week in network TV because their audience is too small. The audience for network news compiled by Nielsen Media Research Data cited in the Annual State of the NewsMedia Report shows that in November of 2003 there were a combined total of 29.3 million viewers for the three nightly newscasts. This means that network news still reaches more than 12 times cable's prime-time audience of 2.4 million viewers. In other words, the nightly news remains vastly more popular than the more adversarial format of cable.

On the other hand, cable is more important than these traditional ratings reflect. More people say they get their news and information from cable than from network news or anywhere else. And within the world of cable news, Fox passed CNN several years ago to become the most-watched outlet. Fox has slightly more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined, somewhere around 1.4 million an evening, in prime time.

Yet among those for whom cable is influential, CNN is still the preferred source over Fox – despite Fox's lead in audience. CNN also complains that Nielsen ratings don't count the millions watching CNN in airports and other public places. Also, despite huge audience upticks with mega-events like 9/11 and the war in Iraq, according to the Annual State of the News Media Report, neither cable news overall nor Fox is expanding their audience over the long run. Cable news viewership overall is flat.

Cronkite says in the film that Murdoch never had any intention except to build a right-wing network, and neither he nor his media stars attempt to hide their point of view. This partisanship is in part what some people in the U.S. find shocking. In contrast to the British, who have long endured the right-wing blare of Murdoch-owned media, Americans are unaccustomed to media as propaganda, especially on television. (Born an Australian, Murdoch, by dint of approval by both Republican and Democratic politicians, is now an American citizen able to own media properties.)

Most media critics bemoan the impact of the rest of corporate media for its lack of coverage of troublesome issues, its aiming content and circulation toward upscale audiences, its becoming overwhelmingly jingoistic in time of war, etc. Yet most of what is wrong with mainstream corporate media, when compared with what's wrong with the blatant Fox, is somewhat disguised. Is it possible that Murdoch is doing us a favor by bringing media politics out in the open, and forcing the rest of corporate media, often content to hide behind an illusion of objectivity, to be more aggressive in support of some of its values, or at least be more feisty?

It may be coincidental, but it is interesting to note that The New York Times recently added Barbara Ehrenreich, probably the best essayist the American Left has, to replace the centrist Thomas Friedman while he works on a book in the lead up to the election. Meanwhile, Graydon Carter, editor of super-establishment Conde Nast's Vanity Fair is publishing a book of his columns, many of which skewer the Bush Administration.

So there is some awakening in the corporate media. But, fundamentally, the Murdoch challenge for progressives is to be able to respond in kind. It is time to find a way to make media interesting from the liberal/left side of the political equation. In part, the "rush to the bottom" in terms of journalistic standards and the "Foxification" of the news are happening because there is little countervailing weight on the other side.

Essentially, there are no liberals on Fox; everyone toes the line. Its partner in crime, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, is almost as bad. But every other major media company in America goes out of its way to ensure that "conservative voices" get their full due, with William Safire and David Brooks on the Times Op/Ed page as one example and The Washington Post filling its pages with rabid pro-war voices in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq as another.

Is it possible to have powerful influential out-front liberal media that is well-funded and entertaining? Michael Moore knows how to do it – more than 10 million Americans will likely see "Fahrenheit 9/11" before November. George Soros, a billionaire several times over, says there is nothing more important than beating George Bush in November. But Bush is just the present symbol of a 40-year effort of the conservatives to remake language, build powerful institutions and have huge impact on the media. Fox's success, indeed its very presence, would not be possible without the hundreds of millions – some estimate billions – of conservative philanthropy that went into building the right-wing juggernaut.

George Soros could be a powerful antidote to Rupert Murdoch, at least in the area of U.S. news coverage, if he were willing to take the lead to seriously fund a long-term electronic and internet media making institution.* The potential progressive audience has grown – start with Michael Moore's filmgoers, then add in MoveOn.org's 2.2 million members, along with the many millions who visit other progressive issue and media web sites, the growing audience for Air America (which is surviving despite being undercapitalized at the beginning) and you have the makings of a 20-30 million viewer audience. Perhaps it is far-fetched to imagine our own powerful progressive media, but there are increasing indications it could make money over time. We can demonize Fox all we want, and it deserves it, but we're never going to be able to count on Clear Channel, General Electric, Comcast, Disney, Viacom and the other media conglomerates, who control our media destiny, to give us any kind of content that will hold their most aggressive competitor, Murdoch's Fox, at bay. That very well may be our challenge.

* The Soros-supported Open Society Institute helps fund MoveOn.org and the Independent Media Institute, parent organization of AlterNet. Robert Greenwald is a board member of the Independent Media Institute.

Greenwald made " OutFoxed" in cooperation with the Center for American Progress and MoveOn.org. He will make use of the innovative model of independent Internet distribution and house parties used so effectively – with more than 100,000 videos in circulation – with his previous film "Uncovered," a biting critique of the process that led up to the invasion of Iraq. "Uncovered" is part of the "Un" series, along with "Unprecedented" about the stealing of the 2000 election, and the forthcoming "Unconstitutional." AlterNet is co-hosting the Bay Area premiere of the film on Friday, July 16, 7pm, at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. Tickets are $10-$20 sliding scale.

Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.