In Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, at least two of the film’s major participants, Lt. John Rushing and Al Jazeera senior producer Sameer Khader, use FOX News as an example of conservative media, unwilling to criticize the US war effort in Iraq. In Noujaim’s film, FOXNews becomes a kind of shorthand for the opposite of what Al Jazeera is doing. I bring up Control Room because it introduces a concept that is picked up, in a much different way, by the recent Robert Greenwald documentary, Outfoxed: both films call into question, in much different ways, the objectivity of the news media images we encounter on a daily basis.
I just returned from one of the Outfoxed house parties in Midtown, where there were over one hundred people in attendance, and as usual, the experience has given me a lot to think about. MoveOn’s ability to orchestrate a media event is still rather impressive. According to MoveOn, approximately 30,000 people around the US attended screenings of Outfoxed. Like other MoveOn events, the screening was in part a tool to persuade people to become more politically active. In this case, people were encouraged to volunteer for one of several media watchdog organizations, including FAIR, Media Matters, Citizens for Media Literacy, and Common Cause. And as I watched the film and the post-film “teleconference,” I tried to read the event as an argument, or series of arguments, and I’m still trying to determine the effectiveness of both the film and the subsequent call to action.
Before I begin my analysis of the film, it’s absolutely crucial to recognize the hard work that Greenwald and his crew, many of whom were volunteers, invested in this project. Putting together a documentary of this scope requires a tremendous amount of labor, and in a seamless final product, that labor can often go unacknowledged and unrecognized. I wish there was a “more visible” way in which that kind of labor could be recognized.
Aesthetically, the film still conforms to the relatively standard documentary tropes of talking heads, illustrative graphics, and evidentiary footage, in this case clips from FOX News shows (with the amount of documentary footage clearly challenging fair use doctrines, which could be one of the most important effects, positively or negatively, of the film). In a conversation after the film, Chris suggested (in conversation) that Outfoxed had a televisual style, and I think he’s right, especially given Greenwald’s “guerilla” approach, which is based on producing a film quickly about what is happening right now. I do think the traces of televisual time and televisual editing remain visible on the film’s style.
The film itself didn’t really show me anything I didn’t know. I was aware of the many studies that showed that FOX News viewers perceive the war in Iraq differently than people who get their news from more reliable news sources (pretty much everyone else). I knew that FOX News uses talking points to hammer home perceptions of public figures (y’know, come to think of it, John Kerry does look French–I’ll bet his real name is Jean). And of course I knew that Bill O’Reilly is a blowhard who shuts down people who articulate liberal or left points of view (although the O’Reilly “shut-up montage” was very funny).
Perhaps the most powerful segment in the film, in my experience, was the section that told the story of Jeremy M. Glick, a signer of the “Not in Our Name” petition, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks. When Glick appeared on O’Reilly’s show, he knew that the Hard Blowing One would treat his views with hostility, and Glick prepared by timing out short soundbites in order to get his message across, which he was able to do with some success. On a subsequent program, O’Reilly suggested that Glick had been “out of control and spewing hatred” and that Glick had claimed that the Bush family “orchestrated” the WTC attacks, both of which were false. The specific example is pretty effective in showing how O’Reilly stifles dissent while also providing some room for optimism (Glick’s ability to put O’Reilly in his place). But, even with this specific example, I still felt that most of the material in the film was relatively familiar to me, at least.
Then again, I’m not sure that the documentary’s specific goal is merely to inform us that FOXNews is bad news, even if it might have that effect on some viewers. I think there’s a larger argument at stake, and I think Outfoxed is aware of that. Greenwald’s larger argument, that FOXNews has changed the discourse throughout the mainstream commercial media, was more significant, but may have been lost in the noise of the “gotcha” sequences. This is where media critiques often seem to run into problems. It’s crucial to establish that FOXNews purposefully uses the mask of objectivity (“fair and balanced”) to promote a conservative agenda, and the film marshals ample evidence to support such a claim. But at the same time, to attack FOX News as partisan, as offering only a partial truth isn’t enough. The second level argument, calling for more public control over the airwaves is more crucial. The gestures towards the debates about media deregulation were helpful here, but I would have liked to see more analysis of the workings of the media (and I realzie that the term “media” in this context is impossibly broad) by people like Bob McChesney. I would have liked a clearer discussion of how to create something closer to a true public sphere, or even whether or not it’s possible to create an “objective” media outlet. In this context, I would have liked a clearer sense of how FOX News is received. I don’t believe that we are all mere ideological dupes who are simply and easily fooled by the messages we receive. I don’t believe the film is suggesting that FOX News viewers are dupes, but media critiques of this sort often fail to acknowledge the possibility for “resistant” or even “negotiated” readings of FOX News.
Finally, I had a difficult time gauging how a regular FOX News watcher might interpret this film. Or someone who didn’t already have a strong opposition to Hannity’s histrionics and O’Reilly’s obtuseness. Many people who have criticized Outfoxed have done so on the level of “objectivity,” commenting that Greenwald did not provide FOX with an adequate time to respond to the charges in the film. All of the employees who discuss FOX’s policies are former employees, and it would be easy to argue that their complaints are mere “sour grapes.” People who believe that FOX News is “fair and balanced” are noticeably absent from the film (a comparison to Control Room which I watched again last night, might be relevant here), and in that sense, I think the film could appear to be painted with the same brush as FOX, albeit with different colors (blue instead of red, I suppose). I do think that these arguments can be effectively countered, especially if we were to empahisize the film’s real argument about the need for more democratic media, but such charges are probably inevitable.
The next question is probably tougher to answer. Will Outfoxed encourage more people to become involved in grassroots media criticism? As I’ve discussed with my rhetoric students, it’s much easier to convince people of the validity of your position than it is to convince them to take action. I do plan on volunteering for at least one of the media organizations. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and it’s something that comes more naturally to me than most other forms of activism, in part because it overlaps so readily with what I do for a living, which is to study film and media and to help students develop the critical tools to do the same. That being said, I couldn’t get a good read on whether or not others at my house party had the same reaction.
No matter what, the film event has provoked me to think, to consider the role of documentary film, to reflect on my own position as a media and film studies scholar, and to seek out forums for discussing these issues. In that regard, I think Outfoxed has been a major success.