Judge Mike Pinsky and DVD Verdict present a fair and balanced look at the second most controversial documentary of 2004—before it hits theaters in your neighborhood!
Our review of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism: Special Edition, published July 10th, 2008, is also available.
"We report. You decide."—Fox News Channel tagline
Every morning, Senior VP John Moody sends out a memo to his news staff. Since Mr. Moody is in charge of editorial content, his memo sets the tone for the day. It is carefully worded. Any mention of President George W. Bush is accompanied by glowing language, hints of heroism, and suggestions for wording difficult issues in a positive light. Any mention of Senator John Kerry hints at deception, partisanship, and, if possible, the French. God, country, and the American flag must always be seen in the best possible terms. News that highlights foreigners, fringe groups, or worst of all, liberals, is fashioned in a negative light. And every day, John Moody's staff repeats the same mantra. Fair and balanced. Fair and balanced.
Welcome to the dizzying world of the Fox News Channel.
Submitted for your consideration: a story posted on CNN.com, dated August 2, 2004, notes that television coverage of the Democratic National Convention was sporadic by the major news networks. Only a few key speeches were broadcast, and many not in their entirety. This is not surprising in a sense: political rallies tend to have a numbing effect if you are not in the audience. But what is surprising is who covered what. As CNN reports, "During the beginning of [Rev. Al] Sharpton's speech, Fox carried a taped [Bill] O'Reilly interview with ABC's Peter Jennings. After providing a [three-minute] taste of Sharpton, O'Reilly cut away to talk to two print journalists about his own interview with filmmaker Michael Moore the previous night." Now, while Rev. Sharpton's speech may not have been a "major" event at the convention, this was not an isolated incident. For example, while CNN and MSNBC covered most or all of any given speech, Fox News Channel devoted no more than five minutes to most speeches. In other words, a legitimate news event was boiled down to a few clips. So how did Fox fill all those remaining hours? What could its slate of reporters and pundits possibly have to talk about? Maybe Bill O'Reilly's behavior at the convention offers a clue.
Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and like most corporate leaders, Murdoch tends to lean toward the right (understandably, as the GOP is more favorable to his business interests). Much has been made recently of the alleged liberal bias in American journalism, but as Eric Alterman and others have skillfully demonstrated, such a perception is more myth than fact. The truth is that whether individual journalists in the popular media have specific biases one way or the other, they are working for media conglomerates whose interests either explicitly or implicitly steer the direction of network news departments. Does Disney have to actively kill a story on ABC that might make the parent company look bad? Not if a healthy dose of fear ("Oh, maybe we need to cut the budget down in the newsroom…") can do the job instead. Most corporate parents do not have to push—perhaps some even genuinely do not want to interfere—but they are like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, is a corporate elephant who likes to stick his trunk in your pocket. As the Charles Foster Kane of the new millennium, he is more than ready to tell us what we ought to think. When Murdoch brought Roger Ailes to his fledgling Fox News Channel, the former Republican strategist promised to "restore objectivity" to network news. "Fair and Balanced" became the official catchphrase. "We report. You decide."
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism wastes no time dancing around the issue. Its contention: Fox is as fair and balanced in its political agenda as Joseph Goebbels on a drunken spree on Yom Kippur. Producer and director Robert Greenwald is certainly no stranger to working for a political agenda. Outfoxed is produced in cooperation with MoveOn.org, the media activist group whose conspicuous agenda is to unseat the Bush administration. But Greenwald has assembled a formidable roster of talking heads to lash out at the Murdoch machine. There are certainly a lot of media watchdogs (call them "liberal" if it makes you feel better), but also a seeming army of former Fox contributors available to point out the network's techniques in excruciating detail. Many, many former Fox contributors—far too many to simply dismiss them all as disgruntled job seekers (as Fox pundits labeled Richard Clarke when he questioned the White House's 9/11 policies).
Worse for Fox, Greenwald has assembled internal Fox memos and endless footage from Fox programming that all lets the network dig its own hole. Watch Bill O'Reilly claim he only ever told one person to shut up on his show—then see a dozen clips in succession of him telling people to shut up. Watch how Fox pundits toss out innuendos by couching them in the telltale phrase, "Some people say…" Watch the ad hominem attacks, emasculated liberal counterviews (conservative voices on the network outnumber liberal voices five to one). Watch how images of George Bush are always accompanied by American flag graphics, while whenever Kerry comes on screen, the flags mysteriously disappear. Watch how factoids and information overload are used to blur the line between crises and light news, so that every event becomes a panic situation.
Ironically, it is that very information overload which causes Outfoxed to become numbing by its second half. The case against Fox is so obvious, so well documented, that Greenwald really makes his point in about half the film's 78-minute running time. His approach is rather scattershot, throwing everything he has on screen in the hopes that we will be sickened to the point of action. Then, in the last act, he gets sentimental, heading into a plea for media activism against corporate power.
Unlike Fox, Outfoxed never claims to be "fair and balanced," but Greenwald might have benefited from a steadier approach to the material. He seems to be trying to emulate Fox's style of hysteria at times, frightening the audience with statistics about how Fox viewers are misinformed about news facts, or how corporate agendas decide our fate. Perhaps he feels he has to work at the other extreme to counter Fox's increasing hold on its audience. After all, Greenwald has 78 minutes in a low-budget documentary that is only now beginning a theatrical release after weeks of distribution through DVD only. Fox News Channel has 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Perhaps a little shouting is in order.
Nonetheless, Greenwald might have done better to compare Fox's practices to those of other networks. What is the balance of partisan voices on CNN or NPR, compared to Fox? Then we might have some context for Fox's excesses. How often does Chris Mathews shout down guests compared to Bill O'Reilly? Trying to outfox Fox at its own game occasionally makes Greenwald's documentary as shrill as its target.
Here at DVD Verdict, we are used to reviewing discs that are either former theatrical releases or direct-to-video productions. Outfoxed is an anomaly. Initially unable to get national theatrical distribution, Robert Greenwald and company turned to the internet, marketing their film directly to the audience. Because this was all done in a hurry (and the film is only now starting to get some play in major cities), Outfoxed is not a full and complete DVD package. Think of it as a screener sent right to your door, your chance to catch a new release before it hits your town (assuming it ever does). Sold for the startlingly democratic price of only $10, through Amazon or directly from the producers, the disc is really a way to get the word out through guerrilla marketing.
As a result, it is hard to judge this DVD package by our usual DVD Verdict standards. The video is full-frame, the audio 2.0 stereo. You almost get to feel like you are watching something illicit, a bootleg passed around under the noses of the authorities. There are no chapter stops, and the image does not appear to be as polished as a true DVD release should be. The only extra is a half-hour featurette on how the film was put together with the help of dozens of MoveOn volunteers. Consider it a guide to do-it-yourself media activism. Make a muckraking documentary at home!
Partisan posturing aside, Outfoxed is part of an important recent backlash against the disturbing trend of corporate consolidation of our media outlets. Whether those conglomerates espouse one political agenda or another, the fact is that our news and information are being channeled through ever-narrowing filters. Perhaps it is a reactionary move to concentrate power and knowledge in the face of the expanding internet (where corporate control is difficult to maintain). Perhaps it is the cultural pendulum that swings the country politically every generation or so.
Whatever the case, the counterspin of Outfoxed is worth a look. And at only $10, it is a great bargain.
Although this court expects to be labeled an "activist judge" by the Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch and company are ordered sealed up in a room filled with Bill O'Reilly's shrieking wind and Sean Hannity's hot air until they beg for mercy. Robert Greenwald is released. Court is adjourned.
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