Outfoxed

I’d been looking forward to seeing Robert Greenwald’s documentary “Outfoxed”. As an amateur media critic and firm believer that most television news in the US has a conservative bias, I figured there was a good chance I’d find a lot to like in the documentary and might learn something about this surprisingly popular network.

Unfortunately, “Outfoxed” kinda sucked.

It’s not so much a documentary as it is a training film for liberals who want to win an arguments with conservatives over whether Fox News Channel is or is not “Fair or Balanced”. (Surprise – it’s not. And if you needed this documentary to tell you that, you’re either watching too much, or not enough television.)

The filmmakers do a decent job of identifying and documenting the techniques FNC uses to support a pro-Bush worldview: shouting down opposing viewpoints, recruiting weak “liberal” guests (who are usually centrists), blurring the line between opinion and journalism, and maintaining consistent messaging dictated by management, designed to satisfy network owner Rupert Murdoch.

Some of the sequences are pretty funny – after Bill O’Reilly insists he’s only told one guest to “shut up”, we see a dozen instances of his unique approach to quieting unruly guests. Other moments are unsettling – watching O’Reilly abuse Jeremy Glick, son of a Port Authority worker killed in 9/11 who had the temerity to tell O’Reilly that his father would not have supported an invasion of Afghanistan gives you a sense of how brutal and intimidating the commentator can be.

Greenwald makes the convincing case that FNC has abandoned all pretenses of journalistic objectivity and instead is operating a propoganda machine like those seen in eastern Europe during the Soviet Union. But this is neither especially surprising or very interesting.

Far more interesting to me would have been an analysis of why FNC has been so economically succesful selling propoganda to people who, unlike people living in the Soviet Union, are free to change the channel. Why do so many people choose to watch FNC rather than (slightly less biased) alternatives on broadcast or cable? And why are other news networks following FNC straight to the bottom in broadcasting left-bashing infotainment?

I came away from the film with a profound sense that the smart, articulate people interviewed in the film were missing a basic truth: the folks running Fox New Channel couldn’t care less whether they’re doing objective journalism. They’ve concluded that they can make money and advance an ideology by producing a certain type of programming, a form of programming that breaks many of the sacred, self-imposed laws of journalism. It’s a little like watching guerillas fighting regular army troops: “Wait, isn’t that against the rules? They can’t shoot at us and then disappear into the jungle, can they?”

They can, and they will. And Outfoxed helped convince me that my friends on the left doesn’t understand how this battle is fought or how this medium works. The Nixon/Kennedy debates taught almost everyone that image is at least as important as content on television. That’s why most people who sit in front of a TV camera wear solid colors (not red, which bleeds on video) and pancake makeup (men and women alike). The folks in Outfoxed evidently didn’t get the memo – one of the talking heads wears tweed, and the moires generated by his moving sportcoat turn the screen into a psychedelic 60s flashback. The graphics showing Murdoch’s rise to power are amateurish. The video clips of Fox – recorded by viewers who were monitoring the channel for the techniques Greenwald identifies on consumer equipment – range from crystal-clear to blurry, with badly flanged sound.

Perhaps this is all the result of underground chic – a way of saying “We’re not paid for by corporate America – you can tell we’re for real because we’re rough around the edges.” But the other message it sends is, “We don’t understand how to do this stuff at a professional level and we’re dramatically outgunned by the slick folks at FNC who use a wide variety of audio and video techniques that we don’t have access to.”

But that wasn’t the problem for me (as much as I wanted to take a makeup brush to the Outfoxed celebrities and save them from their own cameras). Like most people, I hate being preached at. I haven’t seen Farenheight 9/11 because Michael Moore tends to piss me off on film or on paper. It doesn’t matter that I agree with Moore on many political points – I hate having those points rammed down my throat without any contrasting perspectives, or any opportunity for his targets to fight back. I’d much prefer it if he’d report and let me decide.

There’s a terrible irony to a film which complains about unbalanced, biased, manipulative, unfair coverage in an unbalanced, biased, manipulative and unfair manner. It wouldn’t have killed the filmmakers to examine CNN, MSNBC and the broadcast networks to see whether FNC is uniquely bad, or whether conservative overrepresentation is a problem across all television. It would have been interesting to hear official FNC representatives react to the statistics presented regarding the network’s biases. But Outfoxed takes a very Fox-like approach to the subject matter – show a number of folks who all happen to agree with you and ignore the existance of another point of view. Perhaps this makes it a useful counterbalance to the propoganda broadcast on FNC… but it’s not very interesting to watch.

There’s so much good work that can be done on the subject of television journalism and the challenges to the existing model of journalistic objectivity. “Control Room”, a vastly better documentary than “Outfoxed”, focuses on the complex decisions the executives of Al Jazeera make every day to navigate between providing a believable, objective, journalistic voice and between their own ethnic identity and pride. Not satisfied with showing us how difficult those decisions are within Al Jazeera, filmmaker Jehane Noujaim also focuses on Lt. Josh Rushing, the media representative for the coalition forces, and his struggles to understand how American actions are viewed by Arab audiences.

The filmmaker clearly has a point of view – she wants the viewer to understand that Al Jazeera is vastly more complicated than the portrait we get from American media – but she allows the viewer to draw any number of possible conclusions as to whether Al Jazeera is objective, and to whether or not it’s a positive force in the middle east.

Greenwald should see if Noujaim is interested in giving lessons. (”Control Room” isn’t a fluke – Noujaim also made the brilliant “Startup.com” a few years prior.) And unless you need to win an argument about bias on Fox New Channel, don’t bother with Outfoxed – go see Control Room instead.

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