YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

'9/11' takes on media as well as Bush

In Michael Moore's hands, TV news footage turns into a critique -- of television news.

June 19, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen and Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writers

It's President Bush looking his least presidential: waiting nearly seven minutes to leave a Florida classroom after learning America is under attack; urging the world's nations to fight terrorism moments before teeing off on the golf course; and telling a roomful of business fat cats, "Some call you the elites -- I call you my base."

Such TV news footage forms the bulk of Michael Moore's controversial new documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which opens Wednesday in New York and two days later nationwide.

The video, which Moore says he acquired in standard and clandestine fashions, gives the film its potency and edge. But whatever the debate about the film's content, secondary questions emerge about the footage itself -- from how he got it to how he uses it. In Moore's hands, the news footage turns into not only a scathing portrait of Bush, but also a sly critique of the media.

Bush's exchange with a reporter becomes a character-revealing moment in the context of "Fahrenheit 9/11." The journalist asks whether the president is working during a vacation in early 2001 at his ranch in Texas. Bush issues the vague reply, "[Advisor] Karen Hughes is coming over. We're working on some things." Outside the context of the film, the exchange has no clear meaning. In the movie, the president appears flummoxed and adrift.

"They filter all the stupidity out of him," Moore complained of the news media during a recent interview. "They make a decision and it's all about access -- that you have to toe the line. It's a constant game going on here, and the American people are losers in this game."

Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, who, like most network executives, hasn't yet seen the film, strongly disputed the notion that the networks are soft on Bush to maintain their access to the White House.

"Tom Brokaw has done three or four major interviews with him and asked any number of rather direct questions," Wheatley said. "Is that filtering it out? We certainly over the years have covered problems that the Bush administration has had. And we've dealt with his difficulties with the English language. So I don't know if Michael Moore is saying that we give George Bush a free pass -- but that's absolutely inaccurate."

Networks and filmmakers are in different businesses, Wheatley said. "Rare is the filmmaker whose work reflects gray values; the work of filmmakers is much more likely to be pointed in a particular direction. We have to be fair, and we work hard to be fair.... We've had our shortcomings. But filmmakers tend to avoid balance and pursue a point of view."

Much of the video that Moore employs to savage Bush and his policies -- though not all -- was licensed to him by mainstream news outlets such as CNN, NBC and CBS. Other times he relied on foreign broadcasters. He also claims to have gotten some clips on the sly, from unnamed low-level employees of news agencies who slipped him outtakes. "We have to protect people," Moore said. "Because I am known enough, they send me stuff. They are people that could get in trouble."

The archival producer of "Fahrenheit 9/11," Carl Deal, who also worked with Moore on 2002's Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine," did not return calls seeking his comments this week. And the movie's producers refused to make him available for interviews on how he obtained the footage.

Networks licensed some of the material to Moore. CNN gave him two clips, one of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and another of pop singer Britney Spears, both of which had been widely rebroadcast by other organizations. A passage from a Larry King interview with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, however, was not licensed, according to a CNN spokeswoman.

ABC News and CBS News also licensed footage. Fox News Channel said Moore never asked for any of its video, as far as it can determine.

NBC provided Moore with footage of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Afghanistan war, the November 2000 election, a wounded soldier, Saudi airlines and shots of both Presidents Bush walking, at the podium or fishing. All of it had already aired on NBC.

Some of NBC's biggest news personalities, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and Tim Russert, also appear in "Fahrenheit 9/11," though NBC said it did not license any footage of its anchors and correspondents.

Couric and several Fox News personalities figure prominently in a montage of broadcasts early in the Iraq war. The "Today" show host exclaims in a patriotic outburst, "Navy SEALs rock!"

Other material that apparently wasn't licensed includes a close-up of Bush, manipulated using slow motion and ominous music, before a televised White House speech. Bush's eyes dart sideways like a mischievous schoolboy's.

Los Angeles Times Articles