In light of the the News of the World scandal, I’m revisiting my interview with Robert Greenwald for his 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.
Ahead of the 2004 federal election, Crikey reported on an apparent move by Fairfax management to order The Age‘s editorial team to “editorialise in favour of the Coalition”. It claimed that Mark Scott, Fairfax’s head of metropolitan newspapers and a former Liberal staffer to the NSW Greiner government, “suggested that every other paper in the country would be supporting [Prime Minister] Howard, so to ‘stand out’ by supporting Labor would look ridiculous.”
The Age denied the claims, but they reignited the debate about media ownership and independence in this country in the same week as the cinema release of Robert Greenwald’s documentary Outfoxed. Subtitled Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism, the film is an extraordinary indictment of the US Fox News network and its claim of “fair and balanced” journalism.
“It’s one of these strange secrets that a lot of journalists and mainstream folks know about,” Greenwald explained down the phone. “They’ve been very clever at spinning it to say ‘we’re fair and balanced’ – which really is code for Republican. They’ll say that internally: ‘hey is this story fair and balanced enough?’ Meaning: is it Republican enough? But the other problem has been that because they are a so-called news outlet many of the other news organisations have not been able to figure out how to write about Fox News, because it’s like trashing your competitors. One of the great things that the film has done, which I had no idea it would do, is that it allowed many journalists of integrity to write about the fact that Fox News is this incredibly biased political outlet. And so I’m hoping that we will reach more and more people.”
I realised that nobody had taken them on because they’re bullies, because they threaten people. I knew it was gonna be tough but I don’t mind taking on bullies.”
They just won’t be the people who read the Murdoch press. When the film was released to cinemas in Australia, Murdoch’s local rags The Herald Sun and The Courier Mail, weren’t accepting advertisements for it. Could this low-budget DVD really be causing Rupert concern? Remember, this is the man Michael Moore described as willing “to sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thought it would make him money.”
Moore got away with the things he did on a Murdoch-owned station because he made the man money. The same goes for Matt Groening with those Simpsons parodies of Fox News – to some extent. Greenwald agrees. “The reason The Simpsons gets away with it is that they’ve made a billion dollars for Newscorp. And Matt Groening happens to be a liberal guy. When he created The Simpsons, and it was on Fox, they did not have a Fox News.”
Indeed, Fox News is only
eight 15 years old. And in that time it has become the most widely watched ‘news’ network in the States, and the most imitated. It also probably helped influence the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election.
“I do think they helped President Bush the first time,” Greenwald muses. “And I think they’re helping him this time by actively affecting their listeners and viewers, but more importantly by affecting other media. The play a role in pulling all of the media to the right and they affect other stations, other reporters, producers, directors and editors who are aware that Fox is way over there on the right and they start to skew their own coverage.”
A good deal of the interviewees in the film chose to remain anonymous, fearing that their being involved would threaten their careers. So just how difficult was it to get people to talk?
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because people were just terrified. They were afraid that they would be blacklisted or that they would be prevented from working again if they spoke up and spoke out. I was really troubled by the number of people who had very legitimate concerns. Certainly Fox spent time trying to tar and feather several of the people who co-operated with me, rather than deal with the substance of what they said.”
Which tends to be their style.
“Exactly. They do character assassination rather than responding to content.”
Given the risks, what made Greenwald decide to do this David & Goliath film?
“When I was doing research on the Uncovered movie I found more and more people talking about the Fox effect and how it had hurt their organisation, their journalism. So I started to poke around and the more I looked into it the more distraught I was. Then I realised that nobody had taken them on because they’re bullies, because they threaten people. I knew it was gonna be tough but I don’t mind taking on bullies.”
When asked what his ultimate hope for the film is, Greenwald jokes “that Rupert Murdoch will see it and decide to take Fox News off the air. But if that doesn’t happen my next greatest hope – and in a way it’s been achieved – is to become central to this vital debate about media and news and the role of news, and putting the spotlight on the practices at Fox. And also taking a big stick and whacking a bully across the knees.”
You can watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism in full here.