Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

‘It’s unfair, it’s slanted and it’s a hit job. And I haven’t even seen it yet.’
— Eric Shawn, Fox News reporter

USA 2004 78 minutes colour
Directed and produced by Robert Greenwald

DVD source: NFSA. Production companies: Carolina Productions, Centre for American Progress, MoveOn.org.

Featuring Douglas Cheek (narrator), Jeff Cohen (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Clara Frenk (political producer), Danny Schechter (mediachannel.org), Bob McChesney (Free Press) and (archival footage of) Roger Ailes, Harry Belafonte, George W Bush, George Carlin, Dick Cheney, Alan Colmes (token Moderate), Walter Cronkite, Newt Gingrich, Jeremy Glick, Sean Hannity, Ted Kennedy, Rupert Murdoch, Bill O’Reilly, Dan Rather, Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, Martin Sheen and Jon Stewart.

Robert Greenwald’s incisive and revealing documentary is a graphic wake-up call to the dangers of media consolidation in general and specifically the Fox News channel, part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, that has been leading other American channels in a race to the bottom in television news standards.

From the outset, Outfoxed nails its colours to the mast – it does not pretend to be fair and balanced, just honestly and realistically biased.

Rupert Murdoch started his career with an Adelaide newspaper inherited from his father when he was 22 years old (shades of Citizen Kane) and almost 60 years later now controls nine satellite TV networks, 175 newspapers, 100 cable outlets, 40 book imprints, 40 TV stations and one movie studio, accumulated through consummate expertise in negotiating and financing. He gave up his Australian citizenship in 1973 in exchange for the legal right to enter the US media market. To raise capital for expansion he issued shares with limited voting rights wherever possible to maintain his family control, and borrowed extensively in leveraged gambles that approached disaster point on at least twice. Murdoch media now reaches three quarters of the world’s population. He had, until recent events, an undisputed power to destroy politicians who opposed him, to influence presidents and prime ministers and to sway elections.

In 1996, Murdoch launched Fox News in the US, the ultimate media propaganda weapon that wraps itself in the flag and brainwashes tens of millions of poor and unemployed voters with meaningless slogans (‘Restore Honor’, Give Back our Country!’ and ‘If You Think Health Care is Expensive Now, Wait Till it’s Free!’). It has convinced them to campaign and vote against their own interests: to believe that cutting taxes for the rich will benefit the poor through a trickle-down effect, that regulation of banks is an attack on the freedom of the working man, that free health care is a socialist plot that will prescribe death squads for the elderly, that climate change is an eco-fascist-communist-anarchist conspiracy, that research scientists cannot be trusted, that intellectuals are out of touch with ‘real people’, and so on. For many years Fox News has been recognised by liberals as the de facto propaganda wing of the Republican Party and its ingenuous motto ‘Fair and Balanced’ as a very bad joke.

Fox News’ persuasive mind control works through repetitive distortions, insinuations, misinformation and inventions. Its most popular presenters are the demonic Bill O’Reilly, anchor man of ‘The O’Reilly Factor’, who shouts down anyone who disagrees with him; the overbearing Sean Hannity, whose token liberal counterweight, the nerdy, bespectacled Alan Colmes, seems to have been chosen as his physical opposite, and political analyst Brit Hume, whose guests are predominately conservatives by a ratio of five to one. Fox News also features a stream of ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ from think tanks with serious sounding names that are mainly phoney fronts funded by wealthy mining, industrial and financial interests.

A feature of Outfoxed is its fast moving edited juxtapositions underlining the repetitious clichés, misrepresentations and name-calling that soon become emotive buzz words among the general population. One of O’Reilly’s tirades is played almost intact – his ‘shut up’ meltdown with the young anti-war activist Jeremy Glick, whose Port Authority father was one of the more than 3000 who died in the 9/11 attack.

Fox News’s consistent spin is no accident, The staff work in a climate of fear, as daily memoranda instruct them on Fox’s latest attitudes and opinions of the day, especially on health care reform and climate change. Disregard those orders and you’re fired. One internal e-mail leaked to a media monitoring group revealed that, on the eve of the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, Fox staff were ordered to make time for climate sceptics within 15 minutes of the airing of a scientific report that the first decade of the 21st century was on track to be the hottest on record. The e-mail concluded ’It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions (i.e. the overwhelming scientific evidence) as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.’

Once upon a time, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administered a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine, introduced by President Truman in 1949 with the laudable aim of ensuring broadcasters presented contrasting positions on controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balanced manner. This Democratic media utopian dream was abolished by President Reagan in 1987 with the support of conservative and religious radio groups on the grounds that it violated free speech rights and that the growing number of media outlets had eliminated the need for regulating fairness in the media. Congress’s attempts to codify the doctrine in law were vetoed by Reagan. President Obama’s moves to restore the doctrine in 2009 were also defeated.

Honesty, equity and balance are qualities seldom found at Fox News, which doesn’t really broadcast news as such, just a seemingly endless harangue of misinformation and slanted opinions, sometimes introduced by the casual remark “some people say …”. Its unsubtle ranting appeals particularly to the growing lower socio-economic population, who are dissatisfied with the quality of their lives and, realising that they may never attain the American dream, are looking aggressively for someone to blame.

Fox not only engineered the 2000 election of the ‘compassionate conservative’ GW Bush, whom most historians have agreed was the worst ever American president – ignorant, inarticulate, casually corrupt and globally dangerous – but also helped get him elected for a second term by using divisive emotional wedge issues like church/state division, abortion, mercy killing and same sex marriage, while downplaying the nation’s real problems, the on-going war in Iraq, the growing national debt and global warming. Fox championed Bush’s folksy lack of intellect while deriding John Kerry, his educated war hero opponent, as so elitist he not only could speak French he even looked a bit French. Bush was to preside over the disastrous 2008 financial crisis, caused mainly by his deregulation of financial controls introduced in the Roosevelt era, and Fox News would ensure that his successor got the blame.

Does watching Fox News make you stupid or are its followers stupid to begin with? After Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a.k.a. ‘the war on terror’, 67% of Fox viewers still believed what Fox News had repeatedly insinuated: that Saddam Hussein was linked directly to the 9/11 disaster, compared with 10% of PBS (Public Broadcasting System) viewers (which is enough of a worry in itself).

Republican strategists appealing to the basest and stupidest impulses can always find a large receptive audience. A Canadian study published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal for Education and Psychological Physical Science found that people with conservative beliefs are more likely overall to have lower intelligence than those with progressive ideologies, based on a sample size of several thousand corrected for education and socio-economic factors. It found those with higher cognitive abilities tended to be more open-minded, flexible and more willing to trust others. However, prejudices tended not to arise directly from low intelligence but from the conservative ideologies that people of lower intelligence are drawn towards.

Another study by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that Fox viewers know less, by up to 18 percentage points, about current international affairs than people who never watch television news.

The Democratic Party has hesitated to use these studies as propaganda, probably to avoid outraged reaction by Fox News that academic elites are daring to call decent, honest, patriotic Americans ‘stupid’.

Though much of Fox News is manufactured misinformation, the US Supreme Court has confirmed that outright lying by the information media, whether wilful or unintentional, does not contravene any US legislation. It’s called Freedom of Speech and it’s guaranteed, subject to certain limitations, by the US Constitution. Two years ago Fox News employed Glenn Beck, an even more rabid fact-twister who organised the initial rallies for the ‘tea party’ that has rapidly become the conservative rump of the conservative Republican Party. Two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been warning that ‘conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system with its own history, its own laws of economics’. The result is a ‘shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology’ which has ‘ominous real-world consequences for American society’.

In 2005 Murdoch bought MySpace for $580m, aiming to experiment with using interactive media to mould young peoples’ opinions. The venture was doomed by management errors and feuds and Murdoch sold out 3 years later for $35m. Otherwise Murdoch seemed unstoppable until the still unfolding UK phone hacking and police bribery scandals, his humbling by the Leveson Inquiry and the British government’s rejection of his takeover bid for BskyB. In the UK at least, politicians seem to be rediscovering their backbones. In Australia we have recently seen the move to privatise Australia’s international TV network for Murdoch to operate as a commercial channel foiled by both public opinion and the excuse that the advisory committee’s deliberations (favouring Murdoch) had been unwisely leaked to The Australian, enabling Communications Minister Senator Conroy to award the contract to the ABC, where it surely belonged.

Other comments on Outfoxed:

‘Fox is not objective. Fox is a Republican propaganda machine.’
— Roger Ebert

‘Rank propaganda … the distorted work of an ultra-liberal filmmaker.’
— Bill O’Reilly

— Introduction to the film at the session ‘Documentaries with a punch’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 11 March 2012

#Newsflash# On Friday 2 March the former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein handed Minister Conroy a report proposing a new independent regulatory body, the News Media Council, be set up with statutory powers to replace the Australian Press Council and to set standards for all forms of media. The report found that the existing self-regulatory body ‘lacked the teeth to keep media organisations in line with reporting standards.’ Media chiefs have reacted with alarm, expressing fears of government control. The report will be considered by the Minister as part of the wider ‘convergence review’ into media in the digital age, to be received later this month. Stay tuned.

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