By Susan Gerhard
THIS WEEK WE bend a knee to commemorate the Pokémon seizures of '97, when extreme flashes of cartoon red and blue drove 685 Japanese viewers, most of whom were children, to the hospital. They complained of nausea, hyperventilation, and/or convulsions, which as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine this month sometimes turned out to be epilepsy. If the United States took a survey of the TV habits of its visitors to emergency rooms, you have to wonder, what kind of patterns might emerge? How many bleeding ulcers and broken limbs have been triggered by viewing a segment of The O'Reilly Factor? Sean Hannity takes on a guest and how many eyeballs are pulled from their sockets?
Somewhere in TV land's pixelated global theater where a tap on the remote can bring you Amish in the City or Wildboyz fondling a giant dead squid lives a 24-hour news channel that, in its zeal to reinvent the news in the image of its creator, has merged all the credibility of professional wrestling with the subtlety of a New York Post headline. With no wink and no nod, but huge three-dimensional graphics sewn together by Betsy Ross, it markets itself under the slogan "Fair and balanced."
So abused, the phrase "fair and balanced" like the words "justice system" is, by now, its own warning. We know enough to avoid it. But Robert Greenwald, director of the new documentary Outfoxed, does what no other informed American would even consider: he takes Fox News at its word. As in his journey back to one sad day in the land of "fair," when O'Reilly Factor host Bill O'Reilly brought on Jeremy Glick, the son of a man who died in one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. Glick was on the show because he'd signed the Not in Our Name petition against the war in Iraq. Unfortunately for O'Reilly, Glick had done his homework; he'd actually timed with a stopwatch just how long it generally took O'Reilly to shut down his uncooperative guests. He'd practiced his delivery with the hope of getting out a message: a full subject-predicate sentence. That he managed to clearly enunciate through O'Reilly's repeated interruptions sent the host into a full volcanic fury, which ended in all manner of "shut ups" and even one unfortunate reference to Glick's grieving, widowed mother.
O'Reilly's tirade, it turns out, wasn't just for the cameras, as Glick relates to the makers of Outfoxed, who in scrutinizing and tracking vast quantities of Fox News footage looking for patterns of behavior closely paralleled Glick's strategy. Glick tells them the host called security to take him away, but as the Sept. 11 survivor attempted to drink one last sip of liquid in the greenroom, more handlers told him he'd better get out of the building before O'Reilly did something that would land him in jail. When Glick turned on Factor the next day, he heard O'Reilly retell the story a whole different way, saying Glick was "out of control." O'Reilly repeated that and other false assertions so many times that Glick asked a lawyer whether he might be able to sue the host for libel. No, he was advised, everything O'Reilly says is so outrageous, it would be difficult to claim O'Reilly knew he was telling a lie.
He reports, you decide which page of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders you'll be consulting that day. It might have been a trip to just let nature take its course until Fox News's rabid hosts had to get dragged away, in straitjackets, if the nature of the network's news reporting hadn't changed the course of history. Election night 2000, duly vilified in the more entertaining and trenchant political doc of the season, Fahrenheit 9/11, all came down to a call made by Fox News's election desk, which had Bush cousin John Ellis working on it and he'd been in contact with his pals Jeb and George W. just that evening. Even though the Associated Press held out and said the election was too close to call, Fox News rushed to judgment and gave it to Bush. And the rest of the free TV press? In a kooky totalitarian reversal of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" gaffe or even the New York Post's "Dem picks Gephardt as VP candidate" one, they shamefully jumped on board within minutes. Fox News chair Roger Ailes, former media strategist for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., later testified to a nation that wasn't really listening anymore that "we gave our audience bad information.... It will not happen again."
There's no shortage of non-innovatively filmed talking heads in Outfoxed, including Walter Cronkite and the always on-point Robert McChesney, to explain the ongoing harm caused by Rupert Murdoch's ownership of a media empire, a collection of 9 TV satellites, 175 newspapers, 40 book imprints, 100 cable stations, 40 TV stations, and one movie studio, reaching a total 4.7 billion people, which is about ¾ of the people on the Earth. And it's no surprise that the empire's flagship news channel supports the Republicans who help Murdoch stay on top of the dirt pile.
What is a surprise are the smoking guns Greenwald digs up to show just how it's done. Fox's firees and escapees producers, contributors, and newscasters speak, sometimes under duress, about tortured tenures in Murdoch's mad, mad media world. Greenwald savors the memos from the office of John Moody, a Fox News senior vice president perhaps a little too heavy-handedly with a demonic-sounding voice-over reading as they give the day's instructions on tone and even word choice. "Let's refer to the U.S. Marines we see in the foreground as 'sharpshooters' not 'snipers,' which carries a negative connotation," one such memo notes. A former contributor recalls the top-down instruction to rename "suicide bombings" as "homicide bombings." The film dissects some of the strategies for merging "news" and "opinion" and eliminating the middleman sources by, for example, using the phrase "some people say." And in its most entertaining sequences and you have to admit, "entertainment" isn't a primary goal of this extremely sober doc the film pastes together varieties of Fox News's worst habits, its echo-chamber repetition of the Republican message of the day, be it John Kerry's purported "flip-flop" voting record or Richard Clarke's supposed hopes of being part of the Kerry cabinet.
It's all so ridiculous, it calls out for the kind of domineering shaming only a Michael Moore can pull off. A back-them-into-a-corner-and-stab technique, or at the very least, a slightly hipper use of music than laying Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" over the credits. I mean, kick 'em when they're up. But maybe it's unfortunate that this guerrilla-produced, grassroots-distributed sleeper doc hit is being compared with more theatrically minded projects of this supercharged election year. It is, itself, journalism meant for the moment, not for the archives and on those terms it succeeds. There are even some of the best comic scenes of the year, as it smacks down O'Reilly with a "shut up" montage. But as the film ridicules Fox News's use of aggressive graphics and short-attention-span crawls, you can't help but notice that Outfoxed is itself, in some way, being outFoxed falling victim to the idea that images of reasonable people speaking about relevant political issues should be enough to carry a nonfiction essay. No sophisticated audiovisuals or artful, cinematic pre-thinking required.
Which brings up the obvious: why do TV viewers like Fox News? Probably the scariest, most important question the film could have answered remained unasked. Is the medium still the message? Can we consult Mr. McLuhan at this juncture? Surveys show viewers of Fox News are up to five times more ignorant about key political issues than audiences of PBS and NPR. Fox News, by keeping its audience misinformed and baiting anger from all sides, has extended TV news's reach from our minds into our guts. It doesn't gather facts; it collects emotion, then empties it safely into the trash.
'Outfoxed' opens Fri/6, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. $4-$8. (415) 863-1087. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.