The Watcher - Fox in the henhouse

Outfoxed charges news channel with partisan reporting

My eyes dart between the MapQuest directions clutched against my steering wheel and the campaigners waving signs outside Georgia Public Television. While the Democratic candidates debate inside, I navigate past the television stations along 14th Street toward an unfamiliar private address. My purpose? To watch a documentary accusing Fox News Channel of partisan reporting called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.

Five days earlier, on the day the film premiered in New York, MoveOn.org began organizing private screenings at nationwide house parties to be held simultaneously July 18. Instead of distributing the film through movie theaters, gracious hosts were encouraged to welcome strangers to their homes and businesses to watch the film on DVD. A live Internet conference with executive producer Robert Greenwald and Air America Radio host Al Franken was scheduled to follow.

Despite rumblings that Fox would take legal action to stop distribution of the film, the home screening effort gathered momentum, and I had received my e-mail confirmation last Friday with a reminder to be on time.

I walk up to an unmarked building and experience the familiar feeling of attending a rave, especially when it takes a few tries to find my name on the guest list. I start to wonder if I'll need a wristband before I can grab a beer, but a smiling guest offers me one.

About 100 people show up for the screening, hosted by Georgia for Democracy. They fill up the folding chairs and a separate viewing room downstairs. Adults of all ages and — judging by footwear — income brackets mingle. I converse with my fellow attendees, including state Sen. Mary Squires, who dropped in after finishing the debate at GPTV; and Robert J. Mussler, president and CEO of Ted Turner Films LLC, who spent 22 years at CBS and helped start a little news network called CNN. But my favorite attendee is a Turner programmer who seems set on meeting a new lady friend.

Promptly at 7:20 p.m., a young Al Pacino flashes against the white wall, which serves as the screen. The image is from Godfather II, the scene where mob families divvy up businesses in Cuba, which, the film argues, is similar to the way Don Rupert Murdoch controls the media. A few PowerPoint screens chronicle Murdoch's media purchases, including his first politician (1972), and calculate his media's reach (4.7 billions people), while Jaws-like music plays in the background. The message is clear: Murdoch is the shark, and the American people are his chum.

The film builds a case about how Murdoch uses his vast media reach not as a news organization but as a partisan soapbox for the Republican Party. Filmmakers obtained internal memos sent to the organization by Senior VP of News Editorial John Moody that dictated what should be covered on the daily news. Some memos contained discussion points for the anchors, such as John Kerry's fatigue on the campaign trail. Others spoke to semantics, such as the one advising anchors to refer to U.S. Marines in Iraq as "sharpshooters" because "snipers has a negative connotation."

Testimonies from former Fox employees and a variety of independent media experts are included, but it's the film's extensive use of Fox News Channel's own clips that cast the network in the worst light. Liberal guests are invited on shows, but Fox's hosts silence opposing views by yelling louder or cutting off mikes, as demonstrated by a humorous montage of Bill O'Reilly shouting, "Shut up!" at various guests.

It's hard to avoid comparing Outfoxed with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. They both share a liberal audience and fuel grassroots movements by effectively providing bad guys to battle against. Not only do the home screening parties make it easy for viewers to immediately network upon seeing the film, but Outfoxed specifically offers ways for audiences to get involved. In the Internet discussion after the film, Greenwald and others encouraged people to sign a petition for the Federal Trade Commission to stop Fox from trademarking and using the slogan, "Fair and balanced," which they claim is false advertising.

While I examine the political materials left on a table and the touch-screen voting machine, a map on the wall glows with dots indicating the other 15,000-plus people logged on at other house parties east of the Mississippi River. There it is, an established nationwide base interested in taking action against corporate media. And the West Coast was scheduled for later that night.