Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism

Written by:
Chris Pepus
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Thanks to Fahrenheit 9/11, many Americans are now familiar with the Fox News Channel’s signature moment. It came on election night 2000, when the head of Fox’s election analysis division, John Ellis, called Florida for George Bush, Jr. The other networks followed suit within minutes, thereby creating a strong impression that Bush had won, but what few at the time knew was that Ellis is Bush’s first cousin. Producer/director Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, Outfoxed, takes deadly aim at Fox News’s close relationship with the Republican Party and the deceitful methods the network uses to advance the views of its owner, Rupert Murdoch.

In their research, the film’s producers discovered much that is unfair and imbalanced, most importantly a series of daily memos from John Moody, a senior vice president at Fox News, in which he dictates how reporters are to cover their stories. A particularly striking example is a memo from March 2004, in which Moody discusses the "so-called 9/11 commission" and writes that, "this is not ‘what did he know and when did he know it’ stuff. Don’t turn this into Watergate." The filmmakers also make effective use of old footage, juxtaposing clips of Foxites making bold statements with other clips that flatly contradict their claims, most humorously in the case of Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that he only once said "shut up" on his show. But perhaps the most memorable piece of footage shows Carl Cameron, the network’s chief correspondent responsible for covering the Bush campaign, chatting with Bush before the start of an interview. The two discussed how much Cameron’s wife was enjoying campaigning for Bush.

A good number of former Fox News producers, reporters and commentators appear in the film, and the star of the show is Larry Walker, an ex-CIA agent and former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism. Walker offers a blunt, commonsensical analysis of the network’s rigid codes of speech and conduct. He once worked as a contributor for Fox News, but ran into trouble after an appearance on Hannity and Colmes, during which he said that invading Iraq would divert resources from the war against al-Qaeda. Sean Hannity was upset at the expert witness for stating the obvious, and though Walker had two months remaining on his contract, he never again appeared on the network.

To make clear how such rigid exclusion of opposing views impacts Fox-watchers, the film includes the results of a survey that asked basic factual questions about foreign policy. The poll revealed that those who watch Fox News are far more likely to be misinformed than viewers of other channels. One-third of Fox-viewers believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq (compared to 11% of PBS-watchers) and two-thirds believe that Saddam Hussein had established ties to al-Qaeda (compared to 16% of PBS-viewers).

The movie’s ending is a letdown, however, consisting of a vague call for activism over some cheesy music. (Speaking of music, Don Henley’s song "Dirty Laundry" gets played twice–there is no reason to contribute to the global glut of Henley tunes.) Also, one dimension of the story is missing, namely that Fox’s rightist ideology is not even consistent on its own terms. The operations of the rest of the Murdoch empire run counter to the puritanically Christian, ultra-nationalist rhetoric emanating from Fox News. For instance, Cal Thomas, a fundamentalist Christian and Fox host, rails against "depravity" in the media and once compared CBS to Caligula’s court because of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl show. Yet, Thomas seems not to notice that his boss owns The Sun, a British tabloid famous for featuring a photo of a topless woman in every issue. Why hasn’t Murdoch been invited on Thomas’s show or The O’Reilly Factor and made to explain himself?

Likewise, Greenwald could have paired the clip of a Fox commentator asserting that, "North Korea loves John Kerry" with a discussion of Murdoch’s role as the favorite media mogul of North Korea’s patrons in the Communist Chinese government. When the Stalinists in Beijing complained that the BBC paid too much attention to Tiananmen Square and human rights issues, Murdoch obligingly dropped the network from his cable company’s Chinese TV package. On Fox, Bible-thumping and flag-waving are no match for the dollar sign and the Murdoch coat of arms.

Of course, it is always easy to come up with issues that a documentary could have covered. Outfoxed is a damning and thorough indictment of Fox News’s dishonest reporting. It should also inspire other filmmakers to look into the subject of the network’s bias, given the nearly inexhaustible supply of evidence.

Chris Pepus

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