Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Fox News in cross hairs of a new documentary
A dogged hunt for evidence of GOP-tilted bias results in the latest salvo from the left.
By Elizabeth Jensen
Times Staff Writer

Jul 12 2004

NEW YORK — In a season of politically confrontational movies, documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald is aiming to do to the Fox News Channel what Michael Moore is trying to do to the Bush administration with his "Fahrenheit 9/11."

A coalition of liberal-minded groups, led by the political action organizers MoveOn.org, teamed to fund "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," Greenwald's new film that portrays the cable news and opinion channel as the prime example of what's wrong with media consolidation.

Working in stealth for six months, Greenwald pieced together allegations from former Fox insiders, memos from the network's editorial chief and extensive on-air clips taken from four months of taping the channel to lay out how Fox, in his view, aggressively promotes a Republican agenda.

His arsenal includes:

• A 2000 tape in which Fox News Channel's chief political correspondent Carl Cameron chats amiably with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush — just before interviewing him — about how much Cameron's wife is enjoying campaigning for the president-to-be. Such conflicts of interest aren't generally allowed at other media outlets. "My wife has been hanging out with your sister…." Cameron tells Bush. "She's a good soul. She's a really good soul," Bush responds. The unaired footage that precedes the interview, billed as a "Fox News Exclusive," appears to have been pulled off a satellite feed. (Moore used such outtakes as a central motif of "Fahrenheit," as he sought to capture images of administration figures in unflattering moments.)

• Nine recent memos from John Moody, Fox's editorial chief, tersely laying out the way in which Fox's reporters and anchors are to discuss the day's news, including pro-administration developments they are to highlight, such as the economy's job growth.

• Former West Coast anchor Jon Du Pre talking about how reporters were praised when they took shots at Democrats and encouraged to report negatively on Jesse Jackson. The anchor also said he got in trouble because his coverage of a Ronald Reagan birthday celebration wasn't sufficiently enthusiastic.

• Fox clips juxtaposed with Republican talking points to show how news anchors and opinion commentators pound home a theme throughout a day, such as a sustained attack on former White House terror chief Richard A. Clarke and a humorous portrayal of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as "French."

One series of clips is strung together humorously to make Fox's top-rated host Bill O'Reilly look bad. After he claims he has only told a guest to "shut up" once, O'Reilly is seen in clips using the phrase over and over. More seriously, the movie explores O'Reilly's on-air feud with the son of a man killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center.

Fox representatives didn't return calls and e-mails seeking comment. On Friday, a Fox official would refer only to a posting on the Drudge Report website that suggested Fox would argue that its practices were no different than those of its cable news rivals and would try to embarrass the others if they ran "self-serving" stories about the documentary. "Fox News executives are lining up a parade of employees who formerly worked at CNN & MSNBC and have been downloading information on how editorial decisions are made at these networks, including the agenda for how stories are supposed to be covered," the item said. Worried that Fox would shut him down prematurely, Greenwald said he never asked the network for permission to use its clips or asked executives to respond to the allegations. Short clips of copyrighted material for news or commentary purposes are generally protected under the "Fair Use Doctrine" of copyright law.

Greenwald said Fox was the only network that turned him down out of hand when he asked for clips for his previous film, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," which opens theatrically next month. As for why he didn't ask them for comment, he said, "They have a pretty effective ability to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The coalition funding "Outfoxed" finally began taking the wraps off the 80-minute film at the end of June, when MoveOn .org invited members to hold "house parties" to show it and a website began showing trailers. MoveOn and the Center for American Progress are holding a news conference today in New York featuring some of the people quoted in the film, which will have its official unveiling in New York on Tuesday.

Greenwald says his goal is that "everybody in America turns off Fox News, that they look at it and see it for what it is and then turn it off." Almost from the minute Fox News Channel went on the air in 1996, critics have complained that the channel, the brainchild of News Corp. chairman Murdoch, distorts the news and promotes a conservative agenda. Fox, whose use of the motto "Fair and Balanced" is particularly irritating to critics, counters that it merely gives equal time to voices that it contends have a hard time getting heard on media outlets it considers liberal-biased.

Indeed, copies of the Moody memos — some provided to the Los Angeles Times by Greenwald's team and some independently obtained — appear to bend over backward to favor a Republican line, but they also show instances where Moody ordered the staff to play down, for example, criticism of Democratic candidate John Kerry and to give Kerry and Bush equal time on days when both were delivering big speeches.

Greenwald originally wanted to look at the effects of media consolidation but soon decided to focus on Fox, he said. Eventually, he contacted more than 50 current and former Fox employees. He found plenty of people who had tough things to say about their former employer, such as Clara Frenk, a Fox booker and producer in 1998-99, who talked about an anti-liberal bias, and former terrorism commentator Larry Johnson, who said he was dropped from Fox in January 2003, without explanation, after he made comments critical of the Bush administration.

Greenwald — whose credits also include "Unprecedented," a documentary about the 2000 presidential election — also found four former employees who wouldn't be quoted because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.

But Greenwald didn't find what Fox critics have always hoped for, some kind of internal memo or a whistle blower who would prove their case of bias unequivocally. "There is no 'Watergate tape,' " he said, adding that Fox News executives are "very smart people; they don't give you the smoking gun." What he found instead, he said, is "patterns. You're not going to find one memo or one person. You look at a pattern."

Greenwald concluded from his research that Fox News is not so much conservative as Republican "partisan" and problematic because it has influenced other TV news channels that are envious of Fox's ratings success.

"Outfoxed," which so far is slated for limited screenings and a DVD release, joins a spate of summer documentaries attacking the media. Among them are Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which contends that TV news has been too supportive of the Bush administration's foreign policies, and "The Hunting of the President," which criticizes decade-old coverage by newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, of the Whitewater accusations that dogged President Bill Clinton's White House.

"Outfoxed" is also the extension of a broad attack on the credibility of Fox News that has been building among many organizations in the last year. MoveOn.org, which also helped finance "Uncovered," has had what it calls a Fox News "monitoring" program in place since November, in which members are urged to write in with examples of Fox bias. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, also a supporter of the film, has issued several reports questioning Fox reporting.

Prominent critics in the media include Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, who does not appear in the documentary, and Walter Cronkite, who does. "It was quite clear when they founded the Fox network that they intended to be a conservative organization" Cronkite says in the film, adding "beyond conservative, a far right wing organization."

The sustained criticism is reminiscent of the campaign that Accuracy In Media and other groups launched with some success against CBS News two decades ago, which are ongoing at sites such as Rather Biased.com.

The pattern suggested by the film starts well before the 1996 Fox launch, with Murdoch's mid-1980s purchase of a group of local TV stations in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. Frank O'Donnell, a former producer of the 10 p.m. newscast on Fox's Washington station WTTG, until he left in 1991, told Greenwald about pressure he felt to run positive pieces on Republicans such as President Ronald Reagan and criticism of Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy.

In an interview, O'Donnell, now the executive director of the Clean Air Trust, called it "the first intrusions by Murdoch into meddling with the content of newscasts." Although he never worked at Fox News, he said, "I was present when the seeds were sown for the … attempt to massage the news and present it through a more conservative prism."

Similarly, Greenwald interviewed Alexander Kippen, a reporter who covered Capitol Hill for WTTG from 1990 to 1995. Kippen, now a media consultant, told The Times he had a "great experience" at the station but has come to be critical of television news, Fox included, and so agreed to help Greenwald with the film. "Fox peddles opinion, which is very cheap and easy. It amuses viewers, and that is the prime goal of TV news, period. It seems to me that all Fox has done is perfected that model," he said.


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