Though politically one-sided and at times resembling a corporate training video, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004) is a highly effective Op-Ed style activist documentary along the lines of Fahrenheit 9/11. It's certain to make the blood of both liberals and conservatives boil, if for different reasons.
Financed by MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, and directed by Robert Greenwald, this direct-to-video feature traces the rise of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, which now includes nine television satellite networks, 100 cable channels, 175 newspapers, 40 book imprints, and 40 TV stations reaching three-fourths of the world's population, some 4.7 billion people. When Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996 as a rival to CNN, its CEO and Chairman, Roger Ailes said, "We'd like to be premier journalists and restore objectivity." Which is like a tobacco company spokesman insisting cigarette smoking doesn't cause cancer.
The documentary zeroes in on the politicizing of Fox's reporting, from daily memos decreeing what topics to focus on and which to avoid all together. It discusses the trivializing of the "Fox News Alert," originally conceived as an attention-grabbing device for earth-shaking events, but soon used to report the daily movements of J-Lo and Martha Stewart.
A good part of Outfoxed focuses on the company's blurring of news and commentary, how anchormen and reporters are encouraged to repeatedly use catch-phrases like "some people say..." as a means of editorializing within a supposedly objective news story; how graphics, speculation and false information are repeated over-and-over throughout the broadcast day until it appears to become fact, and in doing so spreads like a virus and parroted on other networks. A PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll points to glaring, fundamental misconceptions about the news perpetuated upon Fox viewers, versus information received from widely respected news-gathering organizations like NPR and PBS. Asked, for instance, "Has the U.S. found links between Iraq & al-Qaeda?" only 16% of PBS and NPR viewers answered "yes," but a frightening 67% of Fox viewers believed there had.
In one sense, Fox is an easy target. Few would accuse Fox News of objectivity; its defenders probably still believe the torture by Americans in Abu Ghraib Prison was, as Rush Limbaugh has said, no worse than fraternity hazing. And despite Ailes's lofty promises of objectivity, despite the widely-held conservative belief in a "liberal media," Outfoxed doesn't have to do a lot of digging to support its view that the company is waist-deep in partisanship.
Beyond the unapologetically conservative Murdoch, the film points to Ailes's many years as a media strategist for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, Sr., and as Michael Moore does in Fahrenheit 9/11, identifies John Ellis, Bush's first cousin, as the man at Fox who "called the election" using data that was, in retrospect, utterly inconclusive, which even Ailes later admits. The case is made that in calling the Florida race in favor of Bush, Fox's super-competitive rivals at the three networks followed suit within minutes, and that, ultimately, Fox had done more to secure Bush's presidency in the public mind than anything in the free-for-all months to follow.
Probably Outfoxed's strongest argument against the company's lack of integrity is video footage featuring Carl Cameron, Fox News's lead political reporter. Preparing to tape an interview with then-candidate Bush in the summer of 2000, Cameron gushes unforgivably before the interview, fawning about his wife's work on behalf of the Bush campaign team, how she's been having fun "hanging out" with Bush's sister. Bush seems quite pleased, and no wonder.
The film convincingly demonstrates how, with its cutting-edge use of graphics, Fox pushes a none-too-subtle daily agenda. Even to the naked eye, its political manipulation is quite obvious. This reviewer, in a not-at-all-scientific study, was taken aback by a Fox News promo ("America's Newsroom") shown in Outfoxed without comment. Looking at the back-and-forth cutting of Bush and Kerry frame-by-frame, it's clear, even on a first pass at normal speed, how the graphic overwhelmingly favors Bush. In the clip, 135 frames clearly show Bush's face, while only 31 show Kerry.
The political spin Fox weaves on some topics is at times downright surreal. Despite unceasing, bloody clashes in Iraq, the violent, almost daily killing of innocent women and children, Fox News would have its viewers believe that country was fast becoming an Arabian paradise, with happy citizens hot-rodding around in their Trans-Ams, going to horse races and, as that great media whore Geraldo "Al Capone's Vault" Rivera asserts, "Life for 95% of the Iraqis is already immeasurably better....[In the markets] big, fat fish coming out of the Tigris and Euphrates River!"
Nearly the entire film cuts back and forth between media analysts and former Fox employees, and excerpts from Fox News programming. As a documentary, its effectiveness is undermined by the lack of interviews with Fox News spokesmen and current on-air talent. It's possible the film's biggest targets -- Bill O'Reilly, Carl Cameron, Brit Hume, Shaun Hannidy -- were invited to participate but declined, or perhaps Fox got wind of the documentary and forbade its employees from participating. Outfoxed rightly accuses the company of blurring objective news with editorial commentary, but in not identifying what's what (i.e., what's presented by Fox as news vs. that identified by them as commentary), the film only confuses the argument further.
The comments of several anonymous former Fox reporters seem unnecessary, given that several high-level former producers and reporters appear on-camera making similar claims, though Greenwald contends many current and former Fox News employees refused interviews out of fear of Ailes's long reach in media circles. There are few high-profile names from other news organizations interviewed, unless you count the long-retired Walter Cronkite, who half-jokingly wonders if, after calling Fox a "far right-wing organization," he can still get a job there.
Jeremy Glick, the son of a Port Authority worker killed on 9/11, is interviewed about his now infamous appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," and the fall-out in which the hot-headed host lied repeatedly about the anti-war statements Glick made on his show. Like much of the documentary, this sequence arguably is guilty of the same one-sided approach as Fox, but is undeniably effective insofar as O'Reilly's big mouth is his own worst enemy (much as Bush's own words/actions are in Fahrenheit 9/11) and the strongest evidence against its claims of ideological impartiality.
Video & Audio
Shot full frame, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism is mostly talking heads and clips from Fox News shows. The clips vary in quality; some of the older excerpts look like they might have been taped off standard VCRs, and the video-generated graphics used in the documentary garish and the antithesis of the slickly effective ones seen on Fox News. Overall, though, the presentation is fine for what it is.
The main supplement is a 29-minute Behind-the-Scenes Featurette which confirms that the project was born out of political activists' desire to expose Fox for what it is, as opposed to a documentarian's apolitical approach to his topic. Also included is a video trailer for Uncovered: The War in Iraq (2004), another Greenwald/MoveOn production.
The great television dramatist Dennis Potter, upon learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer and had only a few months to live, said in an interview that he gave serious thought to using that time to assassinate Rupert Murdoch. Instead he wrote two final plays, one of which, Cold Lazarus (1996) is set in the distant future and features a grotesque Murdoch-like mogul. But even that cautionary tale seems downright quaint in today's media environment.
Potter's main complaint against Murdoch was his shameless pandering in the name of profits. But when a so-called news organization can influence and perhaps swing presidential elections, when one ideological perspective is passed off and accepted by millions as objective news reporting, the predictions of Orwellian society are no longer a distant possibility. It's already here.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.