I had heard this sort of thing happened. But until the other day, I had never witnessed it myself. Let me explain. Ask anyone who's worked in a bookstore for an extended period and they will confirm the following pathetic act does occur: If there is a book sitting on display written from a specific political slant, inevitably a customer with an opposing ideology will saunter up to that display and casually cover up the offending book. Not with a piece of paper, not with a tissue. With a book written from a political perspective they do agree with.
So much for the marketplace of ideas. Right, left, center - book lovers of every political persuasion (and an alarming sense of self-righteousness) do it. The first time I heard of this, it had the ring of an urban legend.
I didn't buy it.
Then I saw it myself. I was wandering the shelves of a Michigan bookstore when I noticed a fairly youngish woman casually place Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror on top of a copy of Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man. I didn't think much of it until I was at another table and noticed Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush placed at an awkward, obscuring angle over Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media.
This was no coincidence.
I looked around. Elsewhere in the store, books from conservative talk show hosts like Bill O'Reilly intentionally obscured the book jackets of White House critics like whistle-blower Richard Clarke; coffee table books of 9/11 photos had been placed on top of Bill Clinton's autobiography. That woman's actions, I realized, were a kind of retaliation.
You might say the same of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (The Disinformation Company, $9.95). It's retaliation too, in a way. Director Robert Greenwald would prefer to see it as "a corrective." The Los Angeles-based filmmaker's new documentary calls to task the Fox News Channel's claim of "fair and balanced" reporting and documents the myriad ways the cable channel floats its own opinions as fact and plays cheerleader to the Bush administration. You've probably heard about Outfoxed. It's compelling, enraging, methodical. Also sloppy. Since it's not likely to get theatrical distribution (certainly not from Fox, anyway), it's gone straight to DVD. You can find it at video stores and retail Web sites and through www.outfoxed.org; for two weeks, it was the bestselling DVD on Amazon.com; it's now No. 2.
So obviously there's a market for retaliation at the moment - for a frankly partisan attack against a frankly partisan cable news network. The film mixes talking heads with a pile of cleverly-edited clips that show the network being itself. If Fox staffers (as we see at one point in the film) float the idea on multiple programs that John Kerry is actually French, Outfoxed counters by nailing O'Reilly to the wall with an unflattering montage of the talk show host screaming at guests to "Shut up" (after he's just finished insisting he's only demanded one guest shut up in the entire history of his show).
Fox spins non-stories into juicy rumor by disguising unnamed sources and their own opinion with the phrase "Some people say." (As in, "Some people say North Korean dictator Kim Jong II would love John Kerry to win.") Outfoxed counters with extremely juicy internal editorial memos from John Moody, Fox's senior vice president of news.
Concerning the 9/11 Commission, Moody writes: "This is not 'what did he know and when did he know it' stuff. Do not turn this into Watergate. Remember the fleeting sense of national unity that emerged from this tragedy."
Concerning coverage of the war in Iraq, he writes: "Do not fall into the easy trap of mourning the loss of U.S. lives and asking aloud why we are there?"
These memos, they show a complete dismissal of journalistic norms and the spirit of inquiry. But there's also a definite Duh-factor to them: Outfoxed is an expose of a channel whose agenda is right out in the open, happily endorsed by the millions of viewers who claim Fox as their primary news source. It's also a lot like that woman who puts books over books she doesn't like. By offering no ideas from the opposite end of the political spectrum (or much in the way of objective context), it splashes water on its own point; it offers the illusion of provocation without actually inviting any debate.
I don't have a problem with a film that wants to give a voice to a side that rarely gets in its say. Without them, we wouldn't have some of the greatest activist documentaries ever made, from the Vietnam-era's Hearts and Minds to Barbara Kopple's stirring profiles of blue-collar workers standing up to their employers. The impact of Fahrenheit 9/11, too, derives almost entirely from a relentless one-sided invective.
Outfoxed doesn't blather and it doesn't offer showmanship. It appears nuanced, the narrator sounds thoughtful. But it doesn't challenge, either. The talking heads are largely former Fox employees who speak of the systematic dismantling of journalistic ethics at the network. Then there are the usual liberal voices like Al Franken, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; in addition, the film was financed with help from the liberal groups Center for American Progress and MoveOn.org; its premiere came a month ago, at 3,000 house parties organized by MoveOn.org.
Again, nothing wrong with that. But you have to wonder what exactly has been learned; you have to wonder how much stronger a film about bias it would have been had it allowed its own bias challenged. Instead there's quick footage of Murdoch testifying before Congress - and that's it. Greenwald never even attempted to get a response from Fox. He told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that he had "every reason to expect that not only would they say no but they would take steps to shut me down." He said Fox doesn't "lack opportunities to tell their story."
And he's right, of course.
Outfoxed is not balanced.
But it is fair, an eye for an eye.
Now everybody's blind.