They Distort, We Deride

A pair of pugnacious documentaries takes on the right-wing propaganda machine.

Open season

In the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11 (which has crossed the $100 million mark in U.S. ticket sales), a couple of pugnacious documentaries remind us why Michael Moore—whatever we might think of his bullying techniques and less than attractive personality—is a necessary and maybe even heroic counterforce. The Hunting of the President (Regent Releasing) and Outfoxed (The Disinformation Co.) are portraits of a right-wing propaganda machine with a magnificent record of accomplishment: tying up moderate Democratic administrations with spurious investigations; portraying moderate Democrats as radical tax-and-spend flip-floppers; and perpetuating the myth that the media is controlled by liberals and/or socialists while parroting, under the guise of fairness and balance, a prodigious list of deceptions. These documentaries are neither fair nor balanced: They are counterprosecutions, and as such they are spectacularly effective.

For one thing, they demonstrate that, as liars go, Michael Moore is a piker. It’s a popular misconception that, in Fahrenheit 9/11, he spins an elaborate conspiracy theory involving George W. Bush, the Saudis, and Sept. 11. The truth is that Moore mostly throws a lot of suspicious stuff out there and leaves the viewer to connect the dots (or, in some cases, admittedly, to fantasize liberally). The Hunting of the President, based on a book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons with the subtitle The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, shows how much more effective the right has been at transforming baseless innuendo into the stuff of $80-million taxpayer-funded investigations—and impeachments. Even though I’d read that book (as well as Jeffrey Toobin’s A VastConspiracy), the movie was like a punch to the gut. How could Americans—of both parties—have let that happen?

A simple, chronological history, narrated with melancholy gravitas by Morgan Freeman, The Hunting of the President is TheBlair Witch Project for Democrats—and, for that matter, democrats. Directed by Nikolas Perry and Clinton’s big buddy Harry Thomason, the movie doesn’t trace a vast right-wing conspiracy—only a relentless, multi-tentacled one. The documentary begins ham-handedly, with Moore-like cheap shots (interpolations of old movies for yucks) and horror-movie music. It picks up speed when the parade of Little Rock Ahabs appears in footage from the ‘80s and ‘90s: spurned office-holder Larry Nichols, Little Rock detective Larry Case, lawyer (and resentful Clinton Oxford classmate) Cliff Jackson, Parker Dozier, Everett Hamm, David Hale—scaaary, kids. But the narrative really doesn’t take off until Whitewater independent counsel Robert B. Fiske, seemingly on the brink of exonerating Bill and Hillary Clinton, is replaced, by Jesse Helms-sponsored Judge David Sentelle, with an ambitious and fiercely partisan Republican, Kenneth W. Starr. That’s when there should be horror-movie music.

Scariest are the familiar shots of Starr taking out the trash: Such a mild-mannered trash-taker-outer, just doing his job! His legal team, meanwhile, is using police-state tactics to turn the screws on some vulnerable people. Chief among them is the bipolar cock-up Jim McDougall, who had badly mismanaged the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and, the movie suggests, is desperate to reclaim some dignity. The Hunting of the President gives us a new culture hero in Susan McDougall, who recounts her refusal to accept the script that Starr’s team has written for her (convinced she is in love with the president, they order her to finger the first lady) and her subsequent years in a maximum security prison on a floor populated by women who have killed their children. McDougall describes wearing a red dress, which instantly pegs her as a child killer, prompting inmates on buses to and from the courthouse to urinate and masturbate in front of the cage in which she was kept—a striking complement to our image of that other dress, the blue one.

Behind the scenes, the movie reminds us, Starr’s future benefactor Richard Mellon Scaife bankrolls such costly operations as the Arkansas Project—which takes its cues from Jerry Falwell’s video The Clinton Chronicles, in which the commander in chief is portrayed as a drug smuggler, embezzler, coke-head, money-launderer, murderer, and all-around enemy of God. It would all have led nowhere … but then, of course, Starr found Clinton’s Achilles’ heel.

The Hunting of the President isn’t large-spirited enough to give any of the credible Clinton critics a mouthpiece. (The press conferences of Paula Jones and her handler, anti-abortion activist and two-time abortion recipient Susan Carpenter-McMillan, don’t count.) The movie lets stand the assertion of Sidney Blumenthal that the president’s enemies were simply driven mad by his pragmatic, conciliatory nature, and it suggests that other foes (Starr among them) were consumed by something like sexual jealousy. The film does not give even grudging recognition to the possibility that Clinton was not only a compulsive womanizer but, on occasion, a sexual predator.

I’m not sure that letting the other side make its case would weaken the movie’s thrust: The bottom line is that an $80-million investigation turned up nothing but evidence of consensual oral sex, and Clinton left office as the most popular president of our time. Popular … and impeached … and hobbled … and unable to get his successor elected despite eight years of peace and prosperity. The most chilling thing about The Hunting ofthe President is that, all in all, that was some good huntin’.

While The Hunting of the President makes its determined way across the country in a limited release, Outfoxed is flooding the mailboxes of liberals everywhere as a 78-minute DVD. Written and directed by Robert Greenwald (in affiliation with MoveOn and the Center for American Progress), it’s mostly talking heads, and for the first 15 minutes—when those heads speak abstractly of corporations monopolizing the delivery of our news—not much of a movie. But when those talking heads metamorphose into familiar ranting heads, it becomes another mesmerizing right-wing horror show. This is the story of the Fox News Network—or, as some people say, the Faux News Network. Some people say that the network that employs such slogans as “fair and balanced” and “We report. You decide,” is the most flagrant propaganda organ in the history of American television.

Oops, that “some people say” is one of Fox’s patented techniques, a trick to introduce the network’s opinion under the guise of an objective observation. (“Some people say Kerry is Jane Fonda with a Burberry scarf around his neck” etc.) Greenwald gives us a terrific montage of our fair and balanced hosts using the “some people say” trope to advance the Republican talking point of the day, via since-published memos by John Moody or commands from on high by former (some people say current) Republican operative Roger Ailes. Here’s another montage: “Some people say John Kerry looks French …” “French …” “French …” “effectively makes Kerry French …”

Sometimes I suspect that “fair and balanced” thing wasn’t coined to deceive viewers so much as to wave a red cape in front of liberals. It works: Snort, snort. But it really is the most unholy sort of chutzpah for Ailes to minimize his ties to the Republican Party and claim that Fox is “restoring objectivity.” Greenwald doesn’t even need the commentators, smart as they are: Al Franken, James Wolcott, Eric Alterman, Bob McChesney, Rep. Bernie Sanders. He doesn’t even need the former Fox employees, like John DuPre, who says he was reamed out and suspended for not making an uneventful birthday at the Ronald Reagan library look like a spontaneous outpouring of mass love, with patriots dropping to their knees in prayer. He could build the whole movie out of clips like the one in which correspondent Carl Cameron talks fondly with George W. Bush about Cameron’s wife, who works for Bush’s campaign. (This precedes the fawning interview seen by Fox viewers.) He could build the whole movie out of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

When O’Reilly invites Jeremy Glick—son of a Port Authority worker who died on Sept. 11—onto his program and then screams at him to shut up, orders his mike cut, and tells his security guards to get the man out of his studio before he tears him to pieces, it’s a mighty moment in the annals of psychopathology. “He came on this program and accused President Bush of knowing about 9/11 and murdering his father!” O’Reilly rants, delusionally. Glick had said, in effect, that Bush was a proponent of American exceptionalism, one of the ideas that provoked the attack that killed his father. A debatable notion, but not if you’re debating O’Reilly—who says he considers Americans who express ideas that “work against our military once war is underway” to be “enemies of the state.”

This is, of course, the language of authoritarianism, of both the right and the left. And that’s the problem with Fox: that its propaganda is used in the service of shutting down dialogue. Say what you will about Air America (I find it entertaining in small doses), the commentators marshal facts to make their points, and can argue with opponents without cutting their mikes and booting them from the studio. The problem with Fox viewers is not that they’re Republican, it’s that their outrage against the “liberal elite” is roughly proportional to their crazy ignorance. Greenwald shares the astonishing statistic that 67 percent of Fox viewers in October 2003 believed that the United States had found links between Iraq and al-Qaida and that more than one-third believed that world opinion favored the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Outfoxed ends with more talking heads on the subject of corporate control of the news media. Good luck prying stations away from Rupert Murdoch, I say. In the meantime, let’s continue to hold up the “fair and balanced” to ridicule, on and off Fox News. Let’s not let Tucker Carlson (on PBS!) attribute John Edwards’ success as a trial lawyer to “Jacuzzi cases”—meaning the young girl who was disemboweled by a faulty pump and will spend the rest of her life attached to machines. And next time you hear someone say, “John Kerry looks French,” you can reply, “He does, kind of. And that George W.—he looks Saudi Arabian!”