Remember When Fox News Wasn’t a Right-wing News Channel? Neither Do I
A dozen years ago, as the U.S. was pulled into war in Iraq by President George W. Bush, Fox News was not just any television network. It proudly blared the White House’s lies coming with singular warmongering fervor. Remember? The terrorists had ties to Iraq. Saddam wanted the bomb. Saddam had the bomb. He could hit us in 45 minutes.
Fox even overshadowed the pro-war New York Times where with the help of Judith Miller, the paper spewed distortions, launched partisan attacks and slammed Bush’s critics as naïve, unpatriotic traitors. Other media, and even members of Congress, followed Fox’s lead. They all assumed that Fox was a legitimate news organization. It wasn’t. Yet that mistake about Fox’s power and impact was wreaking terrible consequences for our democracy and the media.
I felt that Fox had to be exposed with facts and broadcast clips for what it was: a partisan propaganda shop masquerading as news network. Other media and the public had to be educated that Fox was acting as the media arm of the America’s political right wing. It was anything but “fair and balanced.”
I knew what I wanted to do. I had made dozens of movies for TV, cable and feature films. We had to investigate Fox and expose it for what it was to real journalists. We could use new tools—crowd-sourced investigations, digital video recorders, and editing software. We could distribute it using the Internet, online DVD sales and social media. In March 2003, America invaded Iraq. The following year was a presidential election. We had to move quickly and couldn’t rely on traditional movie theaters or TV. We didn’t.
In July 2004, we released our documentary film, Outfoxed, which relies on Fox News’ own words and methods to let people see Fox for what it was. Today, a decade later, we are re-releasing the film with a new section adding context. It’s worth reflecting on what we did, the impact the film had, and what’s left to do—why it’s still very relevant today.
As Texas’s Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz said in a June New Yorker magazine profile, “In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative.” That perfectly describes Fox’s mission: recast news from a right wing perspective, only support Republican prescriptions, and attack the opposition. In Outfoxed, we showed how Fox does that so that Americans could understand how partisan propaganda works.
We began by assembling a team that started watching Fox seven days a week. Our team, mostly volunteers recruited by MoveOn.org, followed shows and commentators. We taped everything, such as when Bill O’Reilly said we were winning in Iraq or when he stammered out vicious attacks on anti-war activists. We noted their rhetoric, tone, presentation, techniques and noticed something above all else: Fox’s unattributed accusations. When Fox wanted to assert a right wing talking point or use a guest as a prop to launch an attack, their hosts would say, again and again, “Some people say…” It’s a clever ruse. The “some people” was Fox CEO Roger Ailes and his Republican friends. What they “say” was indistinguishable from political attack ads and smears.
I remember seeing that for the first time in the editing room and almost fell off my chair. I was surprised at how often they did it. We also had sources inside Fox’s newsroom who had grown weary of Fox’s journalistic pretensions. They gave us dozens of memos from senior Fox editors. For the first time, we had written proof of Fox telling its reporters what to say and how to say it. Never say sniper in a script, the memos said, always say sharpshooter. Never mourn a soldier’s death, its writers and analysts were told. They were the shock troops in a right wing propaganda war.
We learned we had to be careful. With the help of Larry Lessig, an intellectual property legal scholar and now a leading anti-political corruption campaigner, we vetted the clips we could use and not be sued by Fox, because, after all, they owned their broadcasts. In short, we learned the legal doctrine known as fair use, so Fox couldn’t touch us. In the spring of 2004, as Fox attacked John Kerry, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, as French—their shorthand for effeminate, diplomatic and culturally elite—we completed the finishing touches on the film that deconstructed its tactics and techniques. In July, we released Outfoxed and launched an unprecedented guerrilla marketing campaign.
We showed it in theaters, of course. We began selling thousands of DVDs online—in the early days of Internet commerce. We partnered with MoveOn.org and started showing it at house parties. That had never been done before. MoveOn had more than 4,000 house parties with conference calls afterward. It built a groundswell. We sent DVDs to high schools, colleges and libraries. But in 2007, as the next presidential campaigns were getting underway, had still had to educate some mainstream Democrats.
That spring, the Nevada Democratic Party was planning to host a presidential candidate on Fox News. We knew that hosting a Democratic candidate debate would lend credibility to Fox fraudulently depicting itself as a news organization, not a partisan front, and launched grassroots protests to stop it. With MoveOn’s amazing energetic Adam Green, we prevailed. The candidates pulled out. There was no debate on Fox.
All along, our goal wasn’t to deter conservatives from watching Fox. We wanted to jar the herd mentality of editors and producers at other media who were prone to following Fox’s lead. This was a battle to wrest control of the national news narrative away from the right wing frames and bias that Fox used. We showed editors and Democrats who were giving Fox News the benefit of the doubt, that they were a partisan propaganda shop—not a news organization. You can’t be both and we demonstrated why.
A lot has happened since releasing Outfoxed in 2004. But history has a way of moving in circles, if not exactly repeating itself. This June, as Iraq imploded into sectarian divisions, Fox was beating the old war drums again. As Hillary Clinton began her newest book tour, it has been pouncing on the presumed 2016 presidential candidate. As the Supreme Court just held that corporations have religious rights and employers do not have to include contraception in women’s health plans, Fox taunts, “You got a problem with that?”
But there’s more to this than Fox’s rants about Benghazi as the worst foreign policy crisis or their unending attacks on President Obama or the Clintons. They continue to weave a deeper narrative that’s divisive and insidious. Their messaging that government is bad, that human nature is intrinsically more evil than good, that people should be afraid and paranoid, isn’t journalism covering the news. It’s a world view and narrative that is embedded in the identity and agenda of America’s political right-wing.
So we are releasing an expanded version of Outfoxed, because Fox is still there. The partisan propaganda machinery is still spinning. All Americans, not just young reporters, editors and voters, need to be reminded what Fox News and political propaganda is about—because we are all better off when we are not outfoxed.