For years the Rush Limbaughs and G. Gordon Liddys and other knights of the political right had it pretty much their own way as media propagandists of the airwaves. Their radio counterparts on the left ranged from the sonorous (former New York Governor Mario Cuomo) to the stumbling (former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower) to the obscure (North Dakotan Ed Schulz), and audience numbers were nowhere close to those garnered by the conservatives.
Air America, the liberal radio network launched earlier this year, got off to a somewhat shaky, under-financed, and underexposed start, but, with on-air personalities like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, the network has already risen to second place in the New York talk-show market behind Limbaugh and company.
But it is in the realm of the feature-length film infomercial that liberals may actually succeed in playing catch-up, perhaps even taking the lead in the theater of ideas. The commercial success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which excoriated President Bush's conduct of foreign policy and national security matters, was matched by generally positive critical reviews.
Now comes a new film entry, producer/director Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, a full-scale effort at debunking the Fox News Channel, a Murdoch-operated behemoth that beats both CNN and MSNBC in the ratings.
Like Moore's video polemic, Greenwald's opus is an exercise in artful selection. Images and sound bites from Fox telecasts (some clearly pirated by the filmmaker) are revealingly juxtaposed to indicate how the network slants unmistakably toward the right of the political spectrum. It's a bias demonstrated in FNC's on-air talking heads, in its logos and working scripts, even in its favored catch phrases -- like the ubiquitous "Some people say ..." when introducing sentiments damning to Democrats or supportive of Republicans.
So far, so good. Better than good when ex-Fox news personnel testify to the partisan pressures they were under -- or when a long snatch is shown of a pre-interview conversation during the 2000 presidential campaign between President Bush and FNC chief political reporter Carl Cameron. The two chat amiably and almost conspiratorially about the fact that Cameron's wife is even then toiling for Bush on the campaign trail!
Not so good, though, when the much-vaunted memos of FNC news director John Moody are quoted from in an effort to demonstrate how pervasive is the content control from on high. In fact, the memos when seen collectively and in toto (as they can be on any number of Web sites; just go Googling) are surprisingly "fair and balanced," calling for frequent live feeds of John Kerry's campaign speeches, for example -- though on issues ranging from Iraq to abortion they do insist that the outlooks generally favored by conservatives be spoken for.
And the long clip of Fox host Bill O'Reilly's interview with one Jeremy Glick, son of a World Trade Center survivor, is almost disastrously counterproductive. Even someone with an allergy to bullyboy O'Reilly (definitely count me in that number) is tempted toward sympathy for him as Glick becomes a guest from Hell, obstreperously pushing forward an anti-Bush agenda rather than directly responding to the host's initially somewhat deferential questions. I confess: I wanted to shout "Shut up!" myself.
But these are cavils. All's fair (and balanced) in love, war, and -- it would seem -- politics, and Outfoxed, so far mainly available on DVD (I saw it at a weekend showing at First Congregational Church), is a worthy response to Fox, Limbaugh, and the rest of those right-wing heavyweights. At least we know the left has some fight left in it. n
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.