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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 16-8-2004

Who's Afraid Of Fox?

Note: PTV will attempt to obtain and screen this documentary.

The extraordinary rise of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News television has gone
virtually unchallenged in the United States, until now. ANDREW GUMBEL

A few months ago, John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, was
invited to an American television show to defend his argument that
President George Bush should be impeached. Except this was not any
television show. He was to be questioned on a programme on Rupert
Murdoch's Fox News network called Hannity & Colmes.

And that was tantamount to putting his head in a lion's mouth and just
waiting for the fangs to sink in, as anyone knows who is familiar with the
gladiatorial style of America's most unapologetically right-wing cable

MacArthur would have argued, had he been given the chance, that the
President had lied "on a grand scale" about the reasons for going to war
with Iraq. But he was not there to explain himself. He was there to be
ridiculed and humiliated.

Before he had uttered a word, Sean Hannity, the attack dog on the
interviewing team, dismissed his thesis as "not even really intellectually
worth discussing". When that provoked a testy response, he goaded his
guest further. "Name me one lie! Name me one lie!"

MacArthur tried to oblige, but within seconds of his launching into the
now-familiar catalogue (the canard of Iraq's nuclear weapons, the
aluminium tube imbroglio, and so on), Hannity cut him off, saying: "We
don't have time for a speech".

The exchange soon deteriorated into a peculiar mixture of inquisitorial
baiting and unintentional black humour.

"I've got to ask you," Hannity said. "Did you call for the impeachment of
Bill Clinton?"

"I wasn't interested in the impeachment of Bill Clinton."

"You weren't interested? So, you're only interested in the impeachment of

MacArthur stood up well, squeezing in more points about dead US soldiers
and betrayal of the public trust until Hannity finally snapped and told
him: "Be quiet".

Hannity summed up, no longer referring to his guest in the second person:
"The idea here is he cannot give a specific example."

"I did give a specific example," MacArthur countered.

"He's full of crap," said Hannity.

"I did give an example," MacArthur repeated.

But Hannity was having none of it. "Hatred of George W. Bush now has
become a sport for these guys," he thundered. And that was the end of

It is hard to watch such exchanges - similar ones are broadcast on Fox
News most nights of the week - without being overwhelmed by queasiness. It
is one thing to have an editorial slant, questionable though that may be
for a station purporting to be "fair and balanced" in its reporting. It is
quite another to bludgeon viewers with the party line and deride or
dismiss everything else out of hand.

Hannity is probably the station's most aggressive cheerleader for the Bush
Administration, but he is far from the only one. The station's top-rated
host, Bill O'Reilly, is notorious for his short fuse with guests he feels
he can get away with humiliating.

On numerous occasions he has told them to "shut up", or referred to them
as "pinheads" or, on one occasion, a "vicious son of a bitch".

Even the straight up-and-down news coverage on Fox strays deep into
partisan territory. The anchors are reverential and often openly
supportive when the subject-matter is President Bush's latest speech, or a
group of US Marines returning from Iraq.

Bad news for the Administration is either screened out altogether - you
will not catch Fox discussing military casualty figures in Baghdad - or
else spun in the Republican favour.

The Democrats are considered fair game for just about every kind of abuse.
Anchors have been known to joke about how well John Kerry, the Democratic
Party presidential candidate, gets along with Kim Jong Il, the North
Korean leader. Coverage of the recent Democratic National Convention was
eccentric, to say the least.

Hannity and O'Reilly moved their operations to Boston's Fleet Centre for
the duration, but used the time either to engineer confrontations with
their political nemeses (a stand-off between O'Reilly and Michael Moore,
the muck-raking documentary-maker, was particularly memorable), or to talk
to the few Republicans present and agree that the spectacle was a
television masquerade behind which lurked an extremist left-wing agenda.

When complaints started coming in to the station that Fox, over and above
its usual bias, was not doing its job as a news channel, a highly
defensive O'Reilly explained that Fox was actually performing better than
its rivals because it was offering viewers "perspective", not "partisan

US media watchers have been marvelling for years at the extraordinary rise
of Fox News, which among its many other attributes has been extremely
successful at attracting audiences and forcing the other cable news
stations - CNN and MSNBC, in particular - to rethink their strategies.

If Americans had no clue until late in the day that the Bush
Administration's stated rationale for war in Iraq had collapsed, it was
largely because the television news stations were not telling them.

But until recently, the singular status of Fox News as the cathode-ray
embodiment of the political party in power had stirred little mainstream
debate. That has now changed, thanks to the extraordinary success and
reverberating influence of a modest little documentary that began to be
distributed over the internet a few weeks ago.

The film, called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism, is the work
of a prominent left-wing Hollywood producer called Robert Greenwald, who
put it together at high speed in weeks, under conditions of utmost secrecy
to avoid pre-emptive legal action.

The film's underlying thesis, that Fox has broken with the journalistic
ethic of fair political coverage and deliberately blurred facts with
partisan opinion, seems, at first blush, so self-evident that one wonders
why it needed to be spelled out. Released on DVD and distributed largely
by the anti-Bush grassroots website MoveOn, Outfoxed sold 100,000 copies
in its first two weeks, was shown at thousands of co-ordinated political
house-parties across the country and shot to the top of's
bestseller list.

As of this weekend, it has found cinematic distribution, showing in four
cinemas in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington. If it is
successful there, it could break out more widely.

Outfoxed's producers say the lesson of this success is that people do not
watch television nearly as critically as one might imagine. "Ordinary
people don't think of the Machiavellian impact of politics on their
lives," Kate McArdle said.

"When we say in the film that the man who first called the [contested]
2000 presidential election for Bush was Bush's own cousin, John Ellis, who
was working for Fox News, people gasp in disbelief. One would think most
people would know 90 per cent of what we put in the film, but they don't."

The film is at its most effective as a deconstruction of what Fox News
puts on the screen. It follows talking-points from the White House, to the
memos distributed to staff at Fox, to what goes on the air, and shows how
extraordinarily similar they are.

It demonstrates how close coverage of President Bush is station policy, as
is the decision to offer only filtered glimpses of the Kerry campaign. It
reveals certain specific linguistic prescriptions, such as the term
"sharpshooter" instead of "sniper" to describe US soldiers picking off
Iraqi targets in Fallujah. Sharpshooter, a memo explains, does not have
the same negative connotation.

And the film offers an intriguing close syntactical reading of the phrase
"some people say", which is repeatedly used by Fox to cloak their opinion
in the language of reasoned analysis.

Whenever a fact inconvenient to the Bush Administration pops up, its
source is denigrated. Thus, when Richard Clarke, the disillusioned former
White House counter-terrorism chief, offered his damning portrait of the
Bush team's stance on terrorism before September 11, Fox immediately
denounced him as a liberal fruitcake prepared to say anything to shift
more copies of his book, Against All Enemies.

One of the film's interviewees, the veteran reporter James Wolcott, says
Fox does not particularly mind if such tactics look faintly silly. "They
don't have to win every argument," Wolcott says, "but if they can muddy
the argument enough, if they can turn it into a draw, that to them is a
victory because it denies the other side a victory."

Naturally, Outfoxed has become an object of the Fox machine. O'Reilly has
denounced it as "rank propaganda" and the "distorted work of an
ultra-liberal film-maker".

A Fox News reporter who confronted Robert Greenwald at Outfoxed's launch
news conference said: "It's unfair, it's slanted and it's a hit job. And I
haven't even seen it yet."

But for all the indignation, Outfoxed appears to have had a tangible
effect on station policy. After a deluge of complaints during the
Democratic Convention, Fox News started airing more of the speeches live
in the last two days.

An informal group of media-watchers inspired by Outfoxed has been
monitoring Fox News around the clock, and swears the station has been
inviting more bona fide liberals. Like everything else in America, the
stakes of this new media debate have been heightened by the looming

Perhaps the most insidious thing about Fox News is the sheer ignorance it
engenders. An opinion poll last October shows 33 per cent of Fox News
viewers think the US has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when
it has not, and 67 per cent think Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda,
which the recently published September 11 Commission report concluded he
did not.

The figures for listeners to National Public Radio were 11 per cent and 16
per cent respectively.

The poll shows not only are Fox News viewers often the least-informed news
consumers, alarmingly, they also regard themselves as well-informed.
Anyone wondering why it is so hard for Kerry to pull away from President
Bush after the policy disasters of the past few months should take note,
and gird themselves for a propaganda war like no other.