The Judge Victor Valdivia News Network goes on the air next week. It's flagrantly biased in favor of hot chicks, loud music, and tough guys who fight a lot.
Our review of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism, published August 11th, 2004, is also available.
"My criticism of Fox News isn't that it's a conservative channel, it's
the consumer fraud of 'fair and balanced'. It's nothing of the sort."
-Jeff Cohen, former MSNBC/Fox News contributor
Since its debut in 1996, Fox News Channel has been hugely controversial, with many arguing that it's biased in favor of conservative Republicans. Outfoxed is a documentary that attempts to address this controversy, but too often the film attaches far too little significance to biased and sloppy journalism in general and far too much to right-wing bias in particular.
Facts of the Case
Outfoxed uses edited montages of footage from Fox News Channel along with interviews with media analysts, former Fox News staffers, and guests who have appeared on Fox News programs, to argue that Rupert Murdoch, Fox News' owner and founder, is using Fox News as a biased propaganda arm of conservative and Republican interests.
The fundamental problem with Outfoxed isn't that it's biased against Fox News. It's perfectly legitimate for a documentarian to display a distinct point of view, no less than it would be for a fiction filmmaker. The problem is that its ideology gets in the way of its storytelling. Outfoxed director and producer Robert Greenwald would like to believe that his film proves the journalistic shortcomings of Fox News Channel, but too often what it actually shows is that Greenwald simply disagrees with Fox News' political ideology.
Outfoxed addresses Fox News Channel's relentless use of loud, flashy, distracting graphics, their stubborn refusal to address any major stories on more than the shallowest level, and their use of frequently incendiary and provocative language, and in this regard, it's well-documented with plenty of damning examples. It's on much shakier ground, however, when it tries to pin Fox's journalistic failures on its right-wing ideology. Is Fox News Channel biased for the GOP? Of course it is. Owned by right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, administered by Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, and with political analysis by John Ellis, President Bush's cousin, how could it not be? And given that part of the funding for this film came from left-wing website MoveOn.Org, it's not surprising, or unfounded, that it finds this bias objectionable. But the problem with the shallow, fast-paced journalism practiced by Fox isn't ideology, it's that Fox isn't the only or even original practitioner. Outfoxed implies that Fox News' ratings success has corrupted the other news channels, that the world of 24-hour news networks was somehow fairly pristine until Fox News came along, a faintly ridiculous assertion at best. Anyone who was around during the mid '90s, before Fox News even launched, need only recall the endless tabloid-style coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair, or the John Wayne Bobbitt fiasco to realize that the 24-hour news networks have only rarely ever been paragons of journalism. Despite what Outfoxed claims, the problems of sensationalism and superficiality are not unique to Fox, they're endemic to all the 24-hour news channels, and TV news in general. To imply, as many commentators in Outfoxed do, that they're part of some sinister conspiracy by Murdoch to systematically disenfranchise Americans from the political process is simply farfetched.
Outfoxed also undercuts its own arguments with its use of film clips. Yes, many of the statements made in the film clips clearly show a bias, and some could be considered offensive by some. But a substantial portion of them are taken from the network's pundit shows, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, and The Big Story With John Gibson (which has since been canceled). And even some of those are not necessarily from the hosts, but from the guest panelists. It's a rather sizable stretch to argue that these clips are examples of journalistic travesties, when it's obvious that people are watching those shows for opinions, not facts. Outfoxed especially wastes a lot of time on Jeremy Glick, an anti-war activist who appeared on The O'Reilly Factor and nearly got into a brawl with Bill O'Reilly. The segment proves that O'Reilly is rude and prone to getting into screaming matches with his guests. But, frankly, so what if he does? Glick freely admits that he had seen many episodes of O'Reilly's show before appearing, so he surely knew what exactly he was getting into. Complaining that O'Reilly's show doesn't allow for nuanced debate on the issues is like complaining that Maury Povich doesn't have enough thoughtful scientific dissertations on the uses of DNA testing. Yelling and screaming his opinions at top volume is what O'Reilly does and why people watch his show. It would be just as unconvincing to single out CNN's Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs or MSNBC's Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews as indicative of the journalistic credibility of those networks.
Indeed, Outfoxed's most dubious assertion is that most of Fox News' audience is unaware that it's a right-leaning channel, that millions of gullible Americans are fooled by Fox's slogans ("Fair & Balanced," "We Report. You Decide") into unwittingly absorbing GOP propaganda. Perhaps that's true. But isn't it just as likely that a large portion of Fox News' audience not only knows that Fox News is biased, but watches for precisely that reason? That Fox is simply meeting the desires of an audience that already existed but wasn't serviced by a TV channel? What, exactly, makes Fox News' bias so much more objectionable than that of radio broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh or print sources like The National Review, or The New Republic for that matter? The rise of websites like Newsmax and the Huffington Post (and, yes, MoveOn.Org) has proven that there are an increasing number of Americans who don't want impartial, unbiased journalism; they want to get their news from sources that strictly cater to their own ideological beliefs. That's a far more significant issue that Outfoxed, not surprisingly, never bothers to address at all.
Outfoxed's failings are equally evident in the all-new extras gathered specifically for this DVD edition. "Fox Attacks!" consists of 18 videos, lasting between one and four minutes apiece, made for Greenwald's website (see Accomplices section), that edit various Fox film snippets into montages involving specific issues. Like the ones in the film, these were primarily chosen from pundits and guests, rather than anchors. In the "Iran" clip, for instance, the most outrageous soundbites come not from any of Fox's journalists or correspondents, but from Independent Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who could hardly be called a paid shill for Murdoch. The most bizarre montage doesn't even have to do with Fox News at all. It's a collection of controversial statements made by MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews about Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary. Greenwald tries to tie Matthews into Fox by noting that at one point he worked for Ailes, but this seems like a huge stretch. Curiously absent is a similar montage of MSNBC's liberal pundit Keith Olbermann, who was also accused of offensive statements against Clinton and who has worked for Murdoch himself at one time.
Most of the rest of the DVD's extras are related to these shorts. Almost all of the shorts come with audio commentary by Greenwald, his producers, or various political activists. They generally address the impact that these videos have had more than the videos themselves. Some are interesting, but others, such as the commentary on the Matthews short by Media Matters' Karl Frisch, are preposterous. Frisch, for instance, claims that Matthews has always attacked progressives, but somehow doesn't explain Matthews' outspoken fawning over Sen. Barack Obama. There's also an "Introduction" (2:19) by Greenwald, which is actually about the shorts, not the film itself. "Behind the Scenes at Outfoxed" (29:09) is the best feature, describing how various MoveOn.org subscribers volunteered to watch particular Fox News programs for an extended period of time and noted specific instances of bias that were later edited into the documentary. "Catching Up With the Newshounds" (4:47) is identical, except that this covers the making of the shorts. The full-screen transfer and PCM stereo mix are both acceptable.
Ultimately, Outfoxed is too superficial to make much of a difference. If you're already convinced that Fox News is loathsome, there's little here that will change your mind. Anyone else will likely fail to see what the point is. Greenwald's approach is simply too unfocused and scattershot. Rather than use Fox News as a starting point to address some fundamental issues about journalism, television, and news consumers in the new millennium, he settles for some rather cheap potshots at Fox and Murdoch (and cheap is not an exaggeration; the film opens with a reference to, curiously, Michael Corleone). It's unlikely that Outfoxed is going to appeal to anyone outside the audience who will go in already agreeing with it.
Guilty of preaching to the converted.
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