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.