Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism / Ryan Lindsey
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
Living as we do in the world’s wealthiest nation, one would think that the dissemination of worthy news stories to citizens would be a matter of course. However, the media deregulation that began under Ronald Reagan’s watch — and exploded under Bill Clinton’s — has created a group of media conglomerates that threatens to destroy the viability of our democracy. Today, the “Big Six” generates most of the news and entertainment that U.S. citizens encounter on a daily basis. Yes, just six corporations are responsible for getting the news to roughly 294 million residents spread out over 9,161,923 sq. km. of land.
Of the six news makers, one among them is more destructive than all the rest: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, proud parent of the Fox News Channel. Fox News was started in 1996, under the tutelage of CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes, a former media strategist for the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and the channel is unabashedly conservative. But just as the guilty are often the most strident in their proclamations of innocence, so Fox News has from the beginning touted itself as “Fair & Balanced.”
With Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Robert Greenwald, director/producer of Uncovered: The War on Iraq, offers another timely addition to the nation’s political discourse. Greenwald approached the making of this film just as he did the last: let Fox News implicate itself through its own broadcasting and internal memoranda, bring in some people who know what they’re talking about — namely former Fox News employees and media experts — and provide empirical evidence proving something odd is happening inside Fox News.
Greenwald starts the film with an examination of the beginning of the Fox News empire. He tells us that Murdoch acquired Metromedia WTTG 5 in Washington, D.C., in 1985, and, according to former employees from that station, for the first three years allowed them to continue disseminating news in the manner to which they had been accustomed. Eventually though, Murdoch’s adoration for Republicans, and Reagan in particular, came through; former producer Frank O’Donnell relates that staff were directed to forego legitimate news stories in order to present a “fawning tribute” to Reagan being shown at the Republican National Convention. At another time, the station was ordered to run a long piece about Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick accident, a questionable decision given Murdoch’s well-known disdain for Kennedy and the fact the accident occurred in 1969.
Former Fox News producer Clara Fenck tells us that she was once given a list of potential commentators, consisting of well-known and respected conservatives and mostly unheard of liberals. Additionally, we are presented with a study conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) showing that during the last six months of 2003, 83 percent of the guests appearing on “Special Report with Brit Hume” were Republicans. Furthering the claim that Fox News is Unfair & Unbalanced, former C.I.A. officer Larry Johnson recounts his experience with the network. Under contract to them, Johnson said he was not invited back as a contributor after making the case that the United States could not effectively wage a war against Iraq and create a viable, sustainable situation in Afghanistan.
We’re also shown various internal memos handed down by Fox News Chief John Moody, which dictated not only what types of coverage would be allowed, but also the tone in which information was to be presented. While this certainly created unity, it did so at a cost to its journalistic accuracy.
The best part of Outfoxed, though, isn’t what Greenwald uncovers but what he compiles from Fox News broadcasts. In one example, Bill O’Reilly responds to a viewer’s request that he stop rudely interrupting his guests with “shut-up,” by saying “the ‘shut-up’ line has happened only once in six years.” We are then shown nine clips of O’Reilly shouting “shut up” — his stock phrase.
We’re also shown broadcast after broadcast in which Fox News reporters refer to Senator John Kerry as “French,” and one in which viewers are told that “North Korea loves John Kerry.” We are also shown Fox News reporters attacking Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism adviser to George W. Bush, following Clarke’s public questioning of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. And we see many broadcasts in which the anchors begin their statements with “some people say…,” a turn of phrase which allows them to present political opinion as news. All they do at Fox, Greenwald seems to say, is present opinion as news.
Even more disturbing than internal practices and manipulation of newscasters, however, is the effect that Fox News has on public perception. When asked whether weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, 33 percent of Fox News viewers said yes, compared with 11 percent of PBS viewers. When asked if world opinion favored an invasion of Iraq, 35 percent of Fox viewers believed it did, versus 5 percent of PBS viewers. When asked if links had been established between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, 67 percent of Fox viewers believed they had been, while only 16 percent of PBS viewers thought so. These are not, however, matters of opinion — no weapons of mass destruction have been found, world opinion most certainly did not favor the United States’ preemptive strike on Iraq, and the bipartisan 9/11 commission has established that there were no links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al-Qaeda.
In the end, though, one wonders what the point of Outfoxed really is. Fahrenheit 9/11 already told us that George W. Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis, was head of the election desk at Fox News on election night and that Murdoch’s network was the first to call Florida in Bush’s favor. And Fox News correspondents deliver the same point of view day after day, in confrontation after confrontation, seemingly without any sense of shame.
There is a point, though, and it comes at the end of the film. The point is familiar to every progressive cause: If enough people are angry enough then the system can be changed for the better. The film shows us the pitfalls of allowing media to be controlled by individual elites, and Greenwald effectively makes the case that our apathy is partly responsible for our current predicament. He invites us to write letters, contact representatives, join organizations such as Code Pink, or write to the FCC. In the end, if this film inspires us to become actively involved in finding solutions, Outfoxed has done its job.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.