Robert Greenwald, an admirer of Michael Moore, is trying to give Fox News Channel the kind of cinematic spanking that Moore just delivered to President Bush in "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"Fox is not a conservative network, it's a Republican network," and its fair-and-balanced slogan is "ridiculous," the Los Angeles director says in explaining why he sought funding from two liberal groups -- and took out a loan -- to make the documentary "Outfoxed."
But Greenwald, whose last movie was "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," makes no effort at fairness or balance himself. Not only did he avoid contacting Fox, and indulge in some misleading editing, but the film also features a parade of the network's liberal detractors -- including Al Franken, Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and out-of-the-closet liberal columnist Walter Cronkite.
Greenwald does score points with a handful of memos from a top Fox executive that appear to suggest tilting the news on such subjects as Iraq and the Sept. 11 investigation, and in interviews with a few former Fox staffers and contributors -- three of whom are off-screen and anonymous, their voices distorted.
But many of their allegations are hard to assess because they involve orders, or attitudes, by an unnamed "they" at Rupert Murdoch's network.
Greenwald says he didn't ask Fox for interviews because "there was every reason to expect that not only would they say no but they would take steps to legally shut me down." He admits he's taking a risk by using lots of Fox footage without permission.
"They're a network," Greenwald says. "They don't lack opportunities to tell their story. . . . I'm hardly Goliath taking on David."
Unlike "Fahrenheit 9/11," Greenwald's movie, which debuts Tuesday in New York, is not likely to play at the local multiplex. The $300,000 film, partly financed by the liberal organizations MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, will be shown at 2,000 house parties around the country, and a $9.95 DVD is being sold online. Greenwald hopes to generate enough buzz to make it into some smaller theaters.
The movie focuses on daily editorial notes to the Fox News staff from Senior Vice President for News John Moody, who wrote in March about the 9/11 commission hearings: "This is not 'what did he know and when did he know it' stuff. Do not turn this into Watergate."
In an April memo on Iraq coverage, Moody wrote: "Do not fall into the easy trap of mourning the loss of US lives and asking out loud why are we there?" Two days earlier, during U.S. military operations in Fallujah, Moody said: "It won't be long before some people start to decry the use of 'excessive force.' We won't be among that group."
And in a May 2003 note on President Bush's judicial nominees, Moody wrote that some were "being held up because of their POSSIBLE, not demonstrated, views on one issue -- abortion. This should be a trademark issue for FNC today and in the days to come."
In an interview with The Post, Moody rejects "the implication that I'm controlling the news coverage," saying of his 1,200 employees: "People are free to call me or message me and say, 'I think you're off base.' Sometimes I take the advice, sometimes I don't."
On Iraq, Moody says his point was that "casualties are part of war" and should not be overplayed. That's a separate issue, he says, from "the political question we debate all the time -- should we be there?
"The insurgents were and are using every possible method they could and can to cause American casualties. Then you have those who say U.S. troops are doing terrible things to these poor Iraqi people. Well, it's a war."
Moody says he wanted the 9/11 panel coverage to reflect the fact that both the Clinton and Bush administrations were under scrutiny. As for judicial nominees, he says, "the litmus test of abortion is not necessarily a good one."
Larry Johnson, a former part-time Fox commentator who appears in the film, says in an interview that the Moody missives were "talking points instructing us what the themes are supposed to be, and God help you if you stray."
Clara Frenk, a former Fox booker and producer in Washington also featured in the movie, says in an interview: "What troubled me most was what I saw as a real lack of balance in terms of the way news was presented."
During President Bill Clinton's impeachment, there was "a real obsession with the state of the Clintons' marriage," she says, but not "a great deal of interest" in criticism of independent counsel Ken Starr for subpoenaing Monica Lewinsky's book records. Fox notes that Frenk volunteered for the 1992 Clinton campaign.
The notion that Fox News leans to the right is not exactly a novel concept. Most of its talk show hosts and most prominent commentators, such as Newt Gingrich, are conservatives. Nearly seven in 10 national journalists in a recent survey named Fox as an especially conservative news outlet. Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten calls Fox "the most blatantly biased major American news organization since the era of yellow journalism."
The case made by Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes -- that his network covers the other side of arguments often minimized by the liberal news establishment -- is largely dismissed by that establishment. Greenwald, for one, says he doesn't believe the media are liberal.
Greenwald got the idea for the film after hearing other journalists talk about the "Foxification" of the business, a trend he defines as other news outlets becoming more conservative, sensational and dumbed down. He also had conversations with MoveOn President Wes Boyd, and former Clinton White House official John Podesta of the American Progress think tank, both of which helped finance his Iraq film. Getting insiders and ex-staffers to cooperate, says Greenwald, was "brutally hard."
"Outfoxed" accuses Fox of blurring the line between news coverage and the high-decibel opinions of its commentators and hosts, especially Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity (who each night counts the days "until George W. Bush is reelected"). But the movie follows a similar path, melding rapid-fire clips of anchors with pundits and guests -- who are, after all, booked for their opinions -- to illustrate that Fox takes the Republican side of every issue.
A scene aiming to illustrate that Fox anchors and commentators constantly use "some people say" as a way of injecting an editorial slant includes the phrase being uttered during an interview with Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll.
Another montage features the line "Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry was scaring old people as usual with the predictable Democratic line." That was conservative host Cal Thomas, not an anchor, talking. And when various shows were debating the question of whether John Kerry seems French, John Gibson -- another conservative host -- greeted viewers: "Or as John Kerry would say, bonjour."
But "straight" anchors do it too. Neil Cavuto, Fox's managing editor for business news, who has contributed money to Bush, is shown in the movie saying: "Assuming that the unthinkable happens and Senator Kerry becomes president . . ."
A former California reporter, Jon DuPre, says in the film: "Any ad-lib that made the Democrats look stupid or made the Republicans look smart would get an 'attaboy,' a pat on the back, a wink and a nod." He says he was suspended because on Ronald Reagan's birthday, "apparently my live shots weren't celebratory enough." Fox says DuPre was never suspended but was transferred for being weak at live coverage.
In a rare rebuttal, Murdoch is seen in the movie saying, "There is diversity of opinion on Fox News. We have many liberals there," naming Alan Colmes and Greta Van Susteren.
Greenwald says he culled the Fox clips from more than eight hours of tapes submitted by 10 volunteers recruited by MoveOn, who found patterns in the network's coverage.
"It's not that they never present the other point of view," Greenwald says of Fox. "It's that they present, a percentage of the time, one point of view." While he considered including some of the non-conservative voices on Fox, he says, "it's a film. At times you make the decision -- that's not so interesting."
Greenwald does highlight instances in which anchors put plenty of topspin on the ball. David Asman, teasing an upcoming segment with the headline "Jobs Killer?," said: "John Kerry's plan to bring millions of jobs back to America, well, someone here says, watch out! Kerry's plan will end up killing more jobs instead."
Still, some of the editing in the movie is questionable. In a montage involving criticism of Kerry's tax policies, political correspondent Carl Cameron is shown saying: "If you want to destroy jobs in this country, you raise taxes." Left on the cutting-room floor is that Cameron was quoting Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
During the debate over former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, a Fox anchor is seen in the movie calling his book "an appalling act of profiteering" -- but he was quoting Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Fox hosts criticizing Clarke are mixed in with such administration officials as Condoleezza Rice and Scott McClellan, who were saying the same things on other networks. A split-screen debate on Fox between conservative Rich Lowry and liberal Ellen Ratner used only Lowry in the movie.
One embarrassing moment in the movie shows Cameron getting ready to interview candidate Bush in 2000. "My wife has been hanging out with your sister" as she goes "all over the state campaigning," he told the candidate. Cameron says in an interview that his wife talked about becoming a Republican volunteer in Montgomery County but never did and never joined the Bush campaign.
Fox wins no awards for decorum. O'Reilly is seen saying he has only once told a guest to shut up, then in several quick cuts telling guests to "shut up," cutting one man's mike, and telling Franken at a book fair to "shut up."
Why has Fox, which outdraws the other cable news channels, become such a fat target? "Being the most popular news network in the country has a lot to do with it," says Fox's Moody. "To say that what Bill O'Reilly says at 8 o'clock is the same as our hard-news coverage, it's simply not. If you watch our news coverage, you'd have a hard time coming to the conclusion that we're covering a different agenda than everybody else."
Will "Outfoxed" change many minds? "If this can get a good, vigorous debate going," Greenwald says, "I'll be a very happy camper."