If you hoped to get away from the U.S. political campaign this summer by going to London, forget about it. Right now in the United Kingdom, unless people are talking about soccer, it's all about Blair and Iraq -- and since Blair and Iraq are inextricably tied up with Bush and Iraq, this provides no vacation from rancor.
Lord Butler's report yesterday on British intelligence before the invasion essentially echoes the tough Senate Intelligence Committee report here. But within hours of the report's release, the headline on London's Evening Standard was an inflammatory screamer: "Whitewash 2." Brits across the board are so angry at being conned into war that how big a liar and/or manipulator you deem Tony Blair just depends on what paper you read.
Blair-bashing in London is almost more exhausting than Bush-bashing in New York because the Tories provide no credible political opposition. The opposition is the press. Dealing with its daily attacks and distortions for eight years while maintaining his buoyant resolve has only toughened the prime minister and scored him points with the public. It hones him for the gladiatorial sessions of Question Time in the House of Commons, an ordeal of direct accountability inconceivable for a U.S. president.
Unlike Bush, Blair is used to living without a partisan media comfort zone. In Britain, it's a smackdown across party lines, prompted more by competition and mischief than ideology. The papers that supported Blair on the Iraq war trash him about the European Union and vice versa. With the tabloids, it doesn't matter if the facts don't fit the argument. When he won three big diplomatic victories over the French and German federalists in the enlarged European Union -- keeping Britain's control of its own taxation, foreign policy and defense, exactly as he had vowed to do -- Blair came home to headlines about his miserable sellouts. "What about our rights, Tony?" jeered the front page of the relentlessly hostile Daily Mail.
That's why if you're a Brit like me it's hard to get too riled up about Robert Greenwald's new documentary, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," currently getting guerrilla distribution on the Web and slated for a bunch of Sunday night screening parties sponsored by MoveOn.org. The movie, which excited a packed panel discussion Tuesday night hosted by New School University's World Policy Institute, seeks to prove that Fox News's claim to be "fair and balanced" is, to put it mildly, false advertising.
Like all good agitprop, "Outfoxed" exists more to confirm dark hunches than to change minds. It's unlikely, after all, that passionate devotees of Bill O'Reilly are trawling West Side cocktail parties and gate-crashing MoveOn.org screening events looking to have their minds changed. But this is the year when it's not enough to vote, you have to vote with your veins popping and your eyes bulging. Screeching to the choir is all the rage.
The Greenwald film does come up with some fun new horror stats for the left to sling around about Fox. "Get this!" you can now holler across the table after seeing "Outfoxed." "Thirty-three percent of Fox viewers believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction, compared with 11 percent of PBS/NPR viewers!" It also offers a memorable montage of O'Reilly's lamppost frame bearing down on a parade of squirrelly, second-rate liberal bookees and telling them to "SHUT UP, I said shut UP" like the nightmare blowhard you can't escape in a beer-soaked bar.
What the movie ignores is the real reason Fox has remained so popular: It's not the politics. It's the flair, stupid. It's the same with Murdoch's racy tab, the New York Post, which is read like a ransom note every morning by all the people who most deplore its point of view. In the U.K., the Daily Mail, which isn't owned by Murdoch, is scarily powerful not because of its parochial, jingoistic, Little England judgments but because of the flawless timing of its malice, the instinctive brilliance with which it identifies and exploits the next national paranoia or distraction. Whether it's the "rising tide" of British pedophilia (statistically on the decline) or the right moment to put the boot to soccer god David Beckham, the Daily Mail is all over it. The difference is that there are plenty of other raucous, mainstream voices to hit back.
The problem with Fox News, therefore, is not Fox News. It's the others. It's that Roger Ailes's brilliant belligerence and formidable TV skills are not matched enough with reportorial testosterone and creativity elsewhere. The concentration of media power among a handful of behemoths makes the mainstream scared and driven by the bottom line. There is a retreat in newspapers as much as in TV from investigative reporting and foreign coverage into craven cost-cutting, Foxian imitation, "lifestyle" journalism or pallid, self-correcting "balanced" coverage that treats a genuine scandal like the Senate intelligence revelations as just another story of the day.
Unsatisfied consumers, browbeaten by the bromide that the U.S. media are too liberal, have to seek emotional relief in the distortions of "Fahrenheit 9/11." But isn't there a more creditable challenger than Michael Moore?
Wanted: A new entrepreneurial media wild man, with deep pockets and real curiosity, who's turned on as much by rigorous reporting as access to power.
Big media need someone with integrity, passion and resolve who believes that hard news and in-depth foreign coverage can be the sexiest kind of reality show and knows how to sell it to a famished audience with as much dogged showmanship as Roger Ailes sells Fox News.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown