Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism

directed by Robert Greenwald
(MoveOn, 2004)

In 1980, Robert Greenwald directed Xanadu, the film which all but drove a stake through the heart of the budding film career of Olivia Newton John -- earning him kudos from cinema buffs everywhere. This year he's again pleased many film fans, with an expose: Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.

For the most part, Outfoxed consists of interviews, primarily with former Fox News producers and contributors who found themselves on the outs after multibillionaire Murdoch began to cobble together the Fox TV network in the mid-'80s. Among the most interesting are Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who was hired by Fox News as a consultant on terrorism issues, and Jon Du Pre, a reporter.

Johnson recalled how busy Fox made him in the days after Sept. 11, and how quickly Fox lost interest in him after an appearance in which he argued that attacking Iraq would divert critical resources from the battle against terrorism in Afghanistan. In fact, with two months to go on his contract, Fox simply stopped calling him at all.

Du Pre, on the other hand, tells the story of how he was sent to the Reagan Library to do live feeds from dawn 'til dusk on the Gipper's birthday, although there was no celebration there of any kind and very few visitors. Du Pre was quickly raked over the coals while still on site, he recalled, because his "live feeds were not celebratory enough."

But there's more to Outfoxed than a series of talking heads. Outfoxed also uses a simple but time-tested technique: taking people's words and matching -- or, in this case, mismatching -- them with their deeds. Outfoxed lets the cameras roll on former Nixon-Reagan-Bush Sr. political operative Roger Ailes, now a head honcho at Fox News, as he explains how Fox plans to become premiere journalists, restoring objectivity where they find it lacking. "We expect to do fine, balanced journalism," he concludes.

But what follows, as reported by Greenwald, comes up a bit short of journalism, either fine or balanced, and nowhere does the director do a better job of demonstrating that than in the case of Jeremy Glick, a young man whose father died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Glick, who signed a petition opposing the war in Afghanistan, agreed to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor," despite concerns about how host Bill O'Reilly might make him appear on camera. It isn't long before O'Reilly is censuring Glick, shouting him down and cutting off his microphone.

But the fun is in the follow-up: Greenwald keeps his cameras rolling -- or, rather, his DVD players recording -- as O'Reilly explains the next day how he threw Glick off the air because he'd attacked the president, and then again some weeks later recalls how he cut Glick off because Glick had accused the president of having knowledge of and helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks -- none of which Glick ever said.

(On the lighter side, it's fun to watch the zeal Fox News analysts display with their big "scoop" -- the "fact" that John Kerry looks French. This you have to see to believe.)

If Outfoxed sometimes comes up short -- and it does -- it's in its own problem with "fair and balanced" reporting. Where are the defenders of Fox News? Where is the obligatory phone call to the opposition, in this case the Fox News producers who form the bogeymen of one anecdote after another? Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed is more opinion piece than documentary, even if Greenwald spares us his own presence in a film that's clearly of great importance to him.

Also, Greenwald's stream of talking heads goes by so fast that it's hard at times to remember who's who, much less what they're discussing. And what's with the attack on Fox graphics?

Yes, they might be overly dramatic, and wrapped in the U.S. flag, which they do their best best to turn into a holy icon. But that's small fish to fry here: Better Greenwald had spent more time mining the PIPA (Program on International Policy Attitudes) Knowledge Networks Poll, which found Fox News fans grossly misinformed about events in the Middle East.

On the whole, however, Outfoxed is a fairly remarkable piece of work, well-paced and professionally edited.

This is no fishing expedition. Greenwald knew what he was after -- and he found it, and shows it, in detail, drawing on both former Fox insiders and media experts, all of them articulate, and none of them "French-looking."

Is it "fair and balanced?" Fox likes to say "We report. You decide."

Greenwald has reported. You decide.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 27 November 2004

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