Are there any casual viewers of Fox News? Partisans watch the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel because it reflects their conservative view of the world; for them, it makes sense. Those on the left watch it to gnash their teeth. If there are uncommitted channel-surfers who come across Bill O'Reilly and company and swallow Fox News' claim to be "fair and balanced," they really need to be directed to Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," a hardly fair, not especially balanced broadside that has the advantage of being correct.
Greenwald is out to prove that "fair and balanced" is a canard -- that Fox News was created by Roger Ailes, media adviser to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, for the express purpose of disseminating a take on the news that conservatives felt the "liberal media" ignored. This is shooting fish in a barrel: Greenwald marshals damning in-house memos that lay out political marching orders such as "striving for balance on Abu Ghraib." He interviews former Fox correspondents and anonymous current employees, all of whom testify to the pressure from upstairs to toe the Republican party line.
Media eminence grises such as Walter Cronkite and Av Westin are brought on to tut-tut; pundits James Wolcott and Eric Alterman scoff at the ways in which Fox pushes hot-button topics such as gay marriage over the economy and the war in Iraq; former right-wing scold David Brock and left-wing jester Al Franken get their licks in. Still, it's the former employees who inflict the most damage. One-time anchor John du Pre recalls that "Any [on-air] ad lib that made the Democrats look stupid and the Republicans look smart would get an `Attaboy' and a wink and a smile."
"Outfoxed" gets even more interesting when it deconstructs the techniques by which Fox News blurs the edges between news and opinion. The use of the words "Some people say. . ." becomes a Trojan horse to insert the Murdoch agenda into a newscast; Greenwald edits together a dizzying parade of anchors using the phrase. Character assassination is a stock in trade -- ask Richard Clarke -- as is the stacking of Brit Hume's "Special Report" with 83 percent Republican interviewees versus 17 percent Democratic.
Bill O'Reilly comes in for the worst treatment, but, let's face it, you don't have to work overtime to make the host of "The O'Reilly Factor" look like a jackbooted media thug. Regardless of his political positions, anyone who bullies interview subjects by repeatedly bawling "Shut up!" is an embarrassment to the trade. By contrast, Sean Hannity merely comes off as a smug toady and Geraldo as the craven opportunist we've known him as for decades.
Where "Outfoxed" falls short is in burrowing into the reasons why Fox News exists and why it's such a success (it got the highest ratings of any network during last month's Republican Convention, a case perhaps of preaching to the choir, but still -- that's a big choir). To do so, Greenwald would have to acknowledge what no one at Fox would ever admit: that the logo "fair and balanced" was never meant as a credo but rather as a cynical swipe at the perceived biases of the other networks and mainstream press. Want to call us on journalistic impartiality? Fox asks every time that phrase is invoked. Look to yourself first.
Maybe someday someone will make a documentary that truly investigates bias in news-gathering -- conscious and unconscious; from right, left, and center. Such a film would have to address whether reportage can ever be free of opinion (short answer: no), and it would also have to acknowledge that the so-called "liberal media" is too compromised by corporate restraints and institutional timidity to be anywhere near as activist as its detractors claim. For the time being, though, Greenwald has fashioned a fine attack dog, and he's sicced it on a deserving subject.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdochs War on Journalism
Directed by: Robert Greenwald
Starring: Bill OReilly, Brit Hume, David Brock, Walter Cronkite
At: Coolidge Corner
Running time: 78 minutes