Last night I finally got a chance to see Outfoxed, the 2004 documentary about the Fox News Channel. Like Michael Moore’s films, it’s a documentary that presents an argument—in this case, that the FNC eschews basic principles of journalism and instead serves as a de facto PR wing for the Republican party.
And that’s a rather easy argument to make. Fox’s conservative bent is obvious, and the rest of the case—that the bias is systemic, systematic, and coordinated with Republicans—is established decisively in the film, through excerpts from the Moody memos and through interviews with former Fox reporters, producers, and consultants. That’s all fine as far as it goes, and Outfoxed doesn’t fail because of those elements. It fails because most of the rest of the film—the filler, essentially—not only doesn’t support the argument, but provides ample fodder to anyone who wants to dismiss it out of hand.
The filler I’m talking about is all the split-second excerpts from Fox shows with which the film is littered. The most well-known example is the series of Fox talking heads saying “flip-flop,” in one context or another, all in reference to John Kerry. The point—a hard one to dispute—is that Fox actively worked to propagate the “flip-flop” meme and make it stick. But the mode of argumentation is just sloppy. Showing an assortment of people saying the word doesn’t make the case—by cherry-picking your barrage of clips, it’d be easy to make any news network look like they’re espousing just about anything. In that segment and elsewhere, clips from news broadcasts are mixed in with clips from punditry shows, where you’d expect to find outrageous bias. And the extended excerpts are from Bill O’Reilly’s show, which is consistently farcical—an easy takedown. The argument would have been better served by limiting clips to FNC’s news broadcasts and looking at the pervasive but subtle ways that the news gets twisted. But Outfoxed is more interested in presenting the spectacle of how outrageously biased and bad Fox can be. In doing so, of course, the film is employing the very sort of propagandistic tactics that it criticizes Fox News for—albeit less polished, and on a much smaller scale.
Outfoxed also interviews a number of media critics and watchdogs, all of whom have solid credentials, but one of whom was a poor choice. I don’t know much about John Nichols, and I don’t have a problem as such with him writing a book titled Dick: The Man Who Is President. The title implies a certain amount of sensationalism—a lack of seriousness that’s reinforced by its lurid cover. But every time they had the guy on the screen they had “Author of Dick: TMWIP” right there under his name. They might as well have put “Left-Wing Hack” there instead. All they had to do was put “Co-author of The Milagro-Beanfield War” or “Washington Correspondent for The Nation” there instead and it’d have been fine.
Finally—and this is a small thing—at the very end of the film, in the “What You Can Do” segment designed to spur viewers to be “activists,” the background music is the piano solo from “Layla”—played over and over and over again. Good grief! Write your own inspirational music—preferably something that actually fits the time you have and doesn’t need to be put on repeat.
All in all, Outfoxed provides plenty of warm fuzzies for people who already hate Fox News, but is poorly designed to convince someone on the fence—who grants the network’s conservative bias but sees it as a mild one, comparable to, say, the bias of NPR—that what they’re doing can no longer properly be considered journalism. The evidence is there, but the film botched the execution, much to my frustration. It’s not the first time.