With Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" confounding all prognosticators with its record $100-million-plus take at the box office, it's no surprise that Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" has decided to join it on theatrical screens mere weeks after debuting at the top of Amazon's DVD bestseller list.
An examination of the philosophy and the practicalities of the Fox News Channel, of how it became what one observer calls "a 24/7 political ad for the GOP," the straight-ahead "Outfoxed" keeps its filmmakers behind the camera and does without the personality-driven "Fahrenheit's" sarcastic sense of humor.
Yet it shares with the Moore film an often-overlooked factor in that work's success, for the most damning evidence of this exceptionally damning film comes not from its covey of liberal commentators but from the mouth of Fox News itself -- from the numerous leaked internal memos that Greenwald obtained, as well as the clips in the film of the channel in action.
For what "Outfoxed" makes undeniable is that head man Roger Ailes must have been dreaming when he announced at the channel's birth that it was going to be a bastion of objectivity and balanced journalism. Love it or loathe it, Fox is, by the evidence of its own broadcasts, more partisan and strident than Ralph Nader's worst nightmare. It has every right to be, of course, but it calling itself objective is a phenomenal piece of chutzpah.
Where Fox's genius lies, "Outfoxed" makes clear, is in its brilliant packaging, its decision to label itself "Fair and Balanced" when it is anything but, to take as its slogan "We Report, You Decide" when its crossing of key journalistic lines decides everything in advance. How seriously, for instance, can we take a network's objectivity claims when its White House reporter is shown telling the president how proud he is to have his wife working hard on the Bush campaign.
Even more eye-widening in their effrontery are those internal memos, which give Fox personnel literal marching orders on how the news is to be played. When the Sept. 11 commission started to heat things up for the administration, a memo instructed the staff: "Don't turn this into Watergate." U.S. snipers are to be called "sharpshooters" to avoid negative connotations, and "suicide bombers" are to be called "homicide bombers" to make them look worse.
Making use of months of intense Fox watching, "Outfoxed" shows us how the network gets its job done. As sequences involving the charge that Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry "flip-flops" on issues demonstrate, Fox tends to parrot specific White House talking points with a relentless regularity that echoes Big Brother in a quite uncomfortable way.
If all else fails, the network goes for the jugular. The most outright depressing parts of "Outfoxed" are the clips from commentator Bill O'Reilly, the snarling impresario of bile who is shown in multiple uses of his trademark "shut up" line while at the same time denying on camera that he uses it much at all.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about "Outfoxed" is the realization that, unlike any administration, liberal or conservative, a news organization cannot be voted out of office. Although Greenwald ends the film with pleas for community action, it is hard not to remember A.J. Liebling's celebrated line. "Freedom of the press," he wrote, "is guaranteed only to those who own one."
'Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
Released by Cinema Libre Studio. Director Robert Greenwald. Producer Robert Greenwald. Camera and sound Rick Perez, Glen Pearcy, Bob Sullivan, Eugene Thompson. Editors Jane Abramowitz, Douglas Cheek, Chris Gordon. Music Nicholas O'Toole. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 655-4010.
Robert Greenwald will appear before the Saturday 5:30 p.m. show.