September 29, 2004 -- “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism” is another in a long list of recent political documentaries that have sprung up this year. Two reasons there have been so many this year is because of the election, and because of the influence of the Fox News Channel, part of Rupert Murdoch's vast media empire. Several documentary filmmakers, alarmed at the increasingly right wing slant of televised political coverage, have tried to counter that slant by telling “the rest of the story” in movies. This one is directed by Robert Greenwald, who also directed “Uncovered: The War in Iraq,” and produced “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election.”
Anyone who has seen Bill O'Reilly report the news should know from which end of the political spectrum Fox is coming from. My own personal epiphany came when I heard O'Reilly claim that anti-war protesters were putting the nation in danger by tying up valuable police resources. O'Reilly actually seemed to believe this rubbish. I knew the Fox News Channel was slanting the news to the right, but I didn't know how bad it was until I saw this film. O'Reilly is featured prominently in the documentary. He is shown claiming that he told only one person to shut up on the air. This clip is followed by a long series of televised clips in which O'Reilly tells one person after another to shut up. O'Reilly rants and rages at people who disagree with him. One telling interview with a young man whose father was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centers shows O'Reilly almost enraged to the point of physical violence.
If it was just one clown pretending to be a journalist, there wouldn't be much of a story here, but interviews with ex-Fox employees, and memos from Fox management shaping the daily news content show that the problems at Fox are institutional and deeply entrenched. It is not enough that journalists have to slant the news, but if they don't slant it hard enough, they can quickly find themselves out of a job. A Fox CIA analyst was dropped from the air after he reported that, in his opinion, the United States did not have the resources to pull troops out of Afghanistan to fight the war in Iraq. That was a fact that Fox News did not want to hear.
If it was just a slant to the news, that wouldn't be so bad. After all, most networks have some slant to the news, but it is diffuse and much less pronounced. Fox goes a lot farther than that, according to the documentary, and not just by orchestrating the slant. Network reporters misstate facts to favor Republicans, its journalists cover stories in which they have conflicts of interest, and the network has no policy against either of these behaviors. Claims are made in the documentary that the network was in “attack mode” against the Clinton Administration, but is a Bush Administration lap dog, almost deifying the President. One funny bit in the film has a journalist set to cover an event at the Reagan Presidential Library. He spent all day there. The few visitors that day included a class of fourth graders. The reporter was criticized by his superiors for not making the story exciting enough. Murdoch is a big fan of President Reagan, perhaps in part because the Reagan Administration presided over the elimination of the F.C.C.'s “fairness doctrine” which for many years imposed a kind of political balance in newscasts. Fox News, as it functions today, could not exist if the fairness doctrine was still in place.
Murdoch today is set to reap the rewards for supporting Republicans. The F.C.C. is moving to adopt rules which make it easier for powerful multinational media organizations like his to dominate major media markets. The Fox News policy of unfair and unbalanced reporting is a win-win situation for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. By appealing to the vast conservative market, it is making loads of money, and it is currying favor with the powerful Republican Party, which can in turn reward Murdoch's companies with favorable laws. Because there is money to be made by this approach, other news organizations are following Fox's lead. As a result, the documentary argues, media news is being slanted to the right. The venerable Walter Cronkite, former anchor of CBS news, notes that the institutional slanting of news coverage at Fox News is unheard of in the news business. Not anymore, Walter. He's thinking of a time not long ago when there was a clear separation between ownership, the news department and advertising in most news organizations. Those barriers are falling.
Al Franken, O'Reilly's bitter opponent, and star of the fledgling “Air America” liberal radio network, takes some predictable pot shots at O'Reilly, calling him a “pathological liar” among other things. With Air America on one end of the political spectrum and Rush Limbaugh on the other, there is a marketplace of political ideas, of sorts. The problem is, as some of the talking heads in the film note, if you have a marketplace for liberal news (PBS) and conservative news (Fox), where do you turn for the real news? If you accept the notion that all news is hopelessly biased, then you become an easy victim to organizations like Fox News. In fact, that's what they want you to think. Conservatives have been complaining about the liberal media for years, but the liberal bias in the mainstream press is trivial compared to the outright partisan politics of the Fox News Channel. What Fox is selling is not real news. It isn't even close. But if you can be persuaded to believe that all news networks and newspaper chains operate like Fox, then there is no news you can trust. You are then tempted to listen to whatever news outlet that tells you what you want to hear. News coverage is for sale. The pockets are a lot deeper on the right than they are on the left, so conservative is the direction news coverage is heading. This is a big story, but there's not much coverage of it, except in this movie, which rates a B.
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