A few months ago, John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, was invited on to an American television show to defend his argument that President George Bush should be impeached. Except this was not any television show. He was to be questioned on a programme on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network called Hannity & Colmes. And that, as anyone familiar with the gladiatorial style of America's most unapologetically right-wing cable station knows, was tantamount to putting his head in a lion's mouth and just waiting for the fangs to sink in.
Mr MacArthur would have argued, had he been given the chance, that the President had lied "on a grand scale" about the reasons for going to war with Iraq. But he was not there to explain himself. He was there, like countless guests before and since, to be ridiculed and humiliated, as a perverse form of public entertainment.
Before he had uttered a word, Sean Hannity, the attack dog on the interviewing team, dismissed his thesis as "not even really intellectually worth discussing". When that provoked a testy response, he goaded his guest further. "Name me one lie! Name me one lie!" Mr MacArthur tried to oblige, but within seconds of his launching into the now-familiar catalogue (the canard of Iraq's nuclear weapons, the aluminium tube imbroglio, and so on), Hannity cut him off, saying: "We don't have time for a speech."
The exchange soon deteriorated into a peculiar mixture of inquisitorial baiting and unintentional black humour. "I've got to ask you," Hannity said. "Did you call for the impeachment of Bill Clinton?" "I wasn't interested in the impeachment of Bill Clinton." "You weren't interested? So, you're only interested in the impeachment of Republicans?" Mr MacArthur stood up well to this barrage, squeezing in more points about dead US soldiers and betrayal of the public trust until Hannity finally snapped and told him: "Be quiet."
Hannity summed up, no longer referring to his guest in the second person "The idea here is he cannot give a specific example." "I did give a specific example," Mr MacArthur countered. "He's full of crap," said Hannity. "I did give an example," Mr MacArthur repeated. But Hannity was having none of it. "Hatred of George W Bush now has become a sport for these guys," he thundered. And that was the end of that.
It is hard to watch such exchanges - similar ones are broadcast on Fox News most nights of the week - without being overwhelmed by queasiness, the sense that they overstep the bounds of conventional journalism into something much more sinister. It is one thing to have an editorial slant, questionable though that may be for a station purporting to be "fair and balanced" in its reporting of the news; it is quite another to bludgeon viewers with the party line and deride or dismiss everything else out of hand.
Sean Hannity is probably the station's most aggressive cheerleader for the Bush administration, but he is far from the only one. The station's top-rated host, Bill O'Reilly, is notorious for his short fuse with guests he feels he can get away with humiliating. On numerous occasions he has told them to "Shut up", or else referred to them as "pinheads" or, on one occasion, a "vicious son of a bitch".
Even the straight up-and-down news coverage on Fox strays deep into partisan territory. The anchors are reverential and often openly supportive when the subject-matter is President Bush's latest speech, or a group of US Marines returning from Iraq. Bad news for the administration is either screened out altogether - you will not catch Fox discussing military casualty figures in Baghdad - or else spun wildly in the Republican favour. Often, the news commentary will be the same, word for word, in some cases, as the spin coming out the White House communications office.
The Democrats are considered fair game for just about every kind of abuse. Anchors have been known to joke about how well John Kerry, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, gets along with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. When some of the best recent US job-growth figures came out in May, the Fox anchor reported, as news, that "they're drinking the Maalox [a powerful antacid] right out of the gallon bucket at the Kerry campaign".
Coverage of the recent Democratic National Convention was eccentric, to say the least. While every other cable news outlet was providing intensive coverage and analysis of the speeches, Fox spent much of its time scooping up trivial crime stories from around the country. For the first two days, it showed barely any live coverage of the speeches. Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly moved their operations to Boston's Fleet Centre for the duration, but used the time either to engineer confrontations with their political nemeses (a stand-off between O'Reilly and Michael Moore, the muck-raking documentary maker, was particularly memorable), or else to talk to the few Republicans present and agree that the spectacle was a television masquerade behind which lurked an extremist left-wing agenda.
When complaints started coming into the station that Fox, over and above its usual bias, was not doing its job as a news channel, a highly defensive O'Reilly explained that Fox was actually performing better than its rivals because it was offering viewers "perspective", not "partisan propaganda".
Media watchers in the United States have been marvelling for years at the extraordinary rise of Fox News, which among its many other attributes has been extremely successful at attracting audiences and forcing the other cable news stations - CNN and MSNBC, in particular - to rethink their own strategies. Not only have the other stations become more confrontational, and more lurid, they have also skewed markedly to the right. If Americans had no clue until very late in the day that the Bush administration's stated rationale for war in Iraq had collapsed, it was largely because the television news stations, out of deference to the official line, were not telling them.
But until recently, the singular status of Fox News as the cathode-ray embodiment of the political party in power had stirred relatively little mainstream debate. That has now changed, thanks to the extraordinary success and reverberating influence of a modest little documentary that began to be distributed over the internet a few weeks ago. The film, called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism, is the work of a prominent left-wing Hollywood producer called Robert Greenwald, who put it together at high speed in weeks, under conditions of utmost secrecy to avoid pre-emptive legal action.
The film's underlying thesis, that Fox has broken with the journalistic ethic of fair political coverage and deliberately blurred facts with partisan opinion, seems, at first blush, so self-evident that one wonders why it needed to be spelt out over 77 minutes of screen time. But the evidence of recent weeks suggests it did need to be said, and the reaction is now palpable.
Released on DVD and distributed largely by the anti-Bush grassroots website MoveOn, Outfoxed sold 100,000 copies in its first two weeks, was shown at thousands of co-ordinated political house-parties across the country and shot to the top of Amazon.com's bestseller list. As of this weekend, it has found cinematic distribution, showing in four cinemas in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington. If it is successful there, it could break out more widely.
The lesson of this success, Outfoxed's producers say, is that people do not watch television nearly as critically as one might imagine. "Ordinary people don't think of the Machiavellian impact of politics on their lives," Kate McArdle said. "When we say in the film that the man who first called the [contested] 2000 presidential election for Bush was Bush's own cousin, John Ellis, who was working for Fox News, people gasp in disbelief. One would think most people would know 90 per cent of what we put in the film, but they don't."
The film is at its most effective as a deconstruction of what Fox News puts on the screen. It follows talking-points from the White House, to the memos distributed to staff at Fox, to what goes on the air, and shows how extraordinarily similar they are. It demonstrates how close coverage of President Bush is station policy, as is the decision to offer only filtered glimpses of the Kerry campaign. It reveals certain specific linguistic prescriptions, such as the term "sharpshooter" instead of "sniper" to describe US soldiers picking off Iraqi targets in Fallujah. Sharpshooter, a memo explains, does not have the same negative connotation.
And the film offers an intriguing close syntactical reading of the phrase "some people say", which is repeatedly used by Fox to cloak their own partisan opinion in the language of reasoned analysis. Whenever a fact inconvenient to the Bush administration pops up, its source is denigrated and accused of political motivations. Thus, when Richard Clarke, the disillusioned former White House counter-terrorism chief, offered his damning portrait of the Bush team's stance on terrorism before 11 September, Fox immediately denounced him as a liberal fruitcake prepared to say anything to shift more copies of his book Against All Enemies.
One of the film's interviewees, the veteran reporter James Wolcott, says that Fox does not particularly mind if such tactics look faintly silly. "They don't have to win every argument," Wolcott says, "but if they can muddy the argument enough, if they can turn it into a draw, that to them is a victory because it denies the other side a victory."
Naturally, Outfoxed itself has become an object of the Fox spin machine, with numerous station employees trying to scare people away rather than engage with its arguments. O'Reilly, who comes off particularly badly in a sequence in which he bullies the son of a New York Port Authority worker who died on 11 September, has denounced it as "rank propaganda" and the "distorted work of an ultra-liberal film maker".
One Fox News reporter who confronted Robert Greenwald at Outfoxed's launch news conference said: "It's unfair, it's slanted and it's a hit job. And I haven't even seen it yet." Fox's complaints (including perhaps the most persuasive one, that they were not given a proper right of reply) might look more substantial if they did not come from a station which keeps insisting, ludicrously, on its own impartiality. "Fair and Balanced," the logo goes. "We report. You decide." O'Reilly describes his show as the "no-spin zone".
But for all the indignation, Outfoxed appears to have had a tangible effect on station policy. After a deluge of complaints during the Democratic Convention, Fox News started airing more of the speeches live in the last two days. An informal group of media-watchers inspired by Outfoxed has been monitoring Fox News around the clock, and swears the station has been inviting more bona fide liberals in the past couple of weeks. Like everything else in America, the stakes of this new media debate have been heightened by the looming election.
Outfoxed takes its place alongside Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Greenwald's previous film Uncovered, in which intelligence and foreign policy veterans pick apart the justification for the Iraq war. And Fox has become part of the election-year debate about the media and political spin.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about Fox News is the sheer ignorance it engenders. An opinion poll last October shows 33 per cent of Fox News viewers think the United States has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when it has not, and 67 per cent think Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qa'ida, which the recently published 9/11 Commission report concluded he did not. The figures for listeners to National Public Radio, America's equivalent to Radio 4, were 11 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
Not only are Fox News viewers often the least informed news consumers, the poll shows. Alarmingly, they also regard themselves as very well-informed. Anyone wondering why it is so hard for Mr Kerry to pull away from President Bush after the policy disasters of the past few months should take note, and gird themselves for an autumn propaganda war like no other.Reuse content