iOS app Android app More

John Farr

John Farr

Posted: July 8, 2008 01:33 PM

The Biggest Jerk on Television



Given the state of affairs in our nation today, I was moved to revisit documentarian Robert Greenwald's scorching Outfoxed (2004), about Rupert Murdoch's insidious, reactionary propaganda machine commonly known as FOX News. My mounting anger as I watched it again made me realize why I had the impulse to rediscover this revealing film, since today it feels more timely than it did on release four years ago. Liberal, conservative, or moderate, all Americans should view this important title and judge its content for themselves.

As to the article's provocative title, this refers not to Mr. Murdoch, but to the loudest, most obnoxious voice on his channel -- that of Bill O'Reilly. Watching how this vile man has treated his so-called "guests" is a jaw-dropping experience. I almost fault O'Reilly less for his biased politics than for his sheer cruelty and arrogance. You don't go on Bill's show to be interviewed, but interrogated, lectured and humiliated. Rarely have I witnessed so repugnant an on-air personality, yet his show, The O'Reilly Factor, is billed as "the most watched program on cable news." I can only guess this is due to that unfortunate part of the human make-up that can't help but rubberneck at car accidents.

O'Reilly's laughable tagline for his on-air charade is "We report. You decide." A variation on this that hits closer to the program's thrust might be "I talk. I decide. Shut up!" At least it has the ring of truth.

All this begs the question: is the concept of civility in political discourse a totally quaint idea? It used to exist; I remember it. And I have to wonder what Ed Murrow and Eric Sevareid are saying about all this in heaven.

Why doesn't some brave soul stage a Joseph Welch/Joe McCarthy moment on The O'Reilly Factor, asking this ignorant, bellicose bully, "At long last, have you no sense of decency?" Simply on the basis of the clips I saw in Outfoxed, it's obvious that Bill O'Reilly is a disgrace to the best traditions of both journalism and television. (For additional proof, you can find more O'Reilly tantrums on YouTube.)

Yet the admittedly poisonous Bill is after all simply doing the bidding of his boss, the smooth and wily Mr. Murdoch, who resembles a snake that might be found in his native country. Though his media holdings do not quite place him in a monopoly position in the media industry, for a ruthless, dangerous man who believes yellow journalism has never gone out of style, he reaches enough people to spread his disinformation widely, helping alter the course of elections and of policy.

Outfoxed makes an extremely persuasive case that FOX News does not provide journalism as we know it: balanced, objective reporting of important stories that genuinely affect people, but instead serves as the propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee. Clip after clip in this stunning work show reporters freely mixing news and right-wing rhetoric disguised as such. It's a con game, and those who watch either don't see it, or at worst, cheer on these goons and their underhanded tactics.

The film informs us that at FOX News, there is a "Memo of the Day", presumably coming from the great Aussie's office,that serves as an edict for how the "news" should be slanted and distorted that day. Any employee who does not follow the edict is not long for the organization; any guest who doesn't is simply cut off on-air and not asked back. This we hear over the course of Greenwald's documentary from a sizeable group of former Fox employees and consultants. They don't appear to be fibbing.

One highlight occurs when a former producer takes credit for creating the concept of "Fox News Alert" for disasters like 9/11, only to see it used several months after his departure for a banal piece about a celebrity couple.

Beyond all the mudslinging, there is indeed a curious lack of important hard news on FOX. This we discover has much to do with Murdoch's tight control on purse-strings, as reporting of this kind requires time, resources, and digging that costs something. Above all else, our Mr. Murdoch prides himself on being a sound businessman. (Good on ya, Rupe.) Happily, mere political gossip and vitriol as bellowed by the aforementioned Bill "Shut Up" O'Reilly not only gets the ratings, but it's also cheap: just one big, loud guy yelling at another valiant victim who's not paid much of anything for the privilege of a public verbal flogging.

It would be one thing if FOX News actually billed itself as purely an Op/Ed channel. But when Outfoxed was made, the channel's theme line was "Fair and Balanced Reporting". Now years ago, I used to be in advertising, and given FOX's true content, that line would never have made it past our lawyers, simply because this is the one thing their "reporting" is clearly not.

Now some readers may have heard the crux of this before, but the point is, what have we done about this scourge since the film was released four years ago? One great virtue of Outfoxed is its overt suggestion that activism -- like petitions and group visits to the FCC -- can help, if it's done in a concerted, ongoing way.

The re-released special edition I watched, which has not hit Amazon yet, adds 18 more video segments "that continues the work started in Outfoxed.... created to start campaigns, petitions and legislation." You can learn more at www.outfoxed.org.

And even if you've already seen this film, viewing it again now will cast an even harsher light on the damage done by this channel. From the very beginning, FOX has predictably and consistently boosted Mr. Bush- both his economic policies and his misguided, pre-emptive war in Iraq. It has also claimed (via the brainless Sean Hannity, who looks like he belongs in a locker room) that America is strong enough to fight terrorism on many fronts -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, you name it. (Sean thinks he's John Wayne.)
Mr. Hannity's words have since been discredited by the facts- off to the showers, Sean.

Also distressing is the fact that FOX helped make this destructive wheel roll from the get-go: Outfoxed details how in the disputed 2000 election, Murdoch's was the first network to brazenly announce "W" had won Florida, supposedly due to a single phone call placed to FOX senior executives by the President's cousin! The other networks, perhaps not wanting to be scooped, followed suit in minutes. Of course, Florida was too close to call at that time. But it gave Bush an immediate psychological advantage.

Today, as we confront the damage left by one of the most incompetent administrations in history -- a discredited war in Iraq, Osama alive and in hiding, a huge deficit, a tottering economy exacerbated by both a fuel and a housing crisis, and at least three-quarters of the populace believing our nation is headed in the wrong direction, FOX's blatant pro-Bush propaganda of just four years ago holds greater power to infuriate than ever before.

With desperately needed change in Washington hopefully starting in six months, no doubt FOX will go on the offensive against the new president and his family (indeed they've already begun -- steel yourself, Mr. Obama). With their failed party and policy resting on the sagging shoulders of a worn-out John McCain, who's desperate enough to shake up his campaign staff to include some shady, though tried-and-true, Bush operatives, they will likely only get more outrageous in their tone and accusations.

Perhaps, naively, I hope this backfires on them, that more thoughtful Americans will see through the transparent tactics of FOX News and simply not watch it. Take my word-just one screening of Robert Greenwald's unnerving Outfoxed should do the trick.

Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jfarr02