Mauling Michael Moore

The attack on Fahrenheit 9/11: Fox lays back while ABC and NBC pile on

In just one weekend, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned more money than any feature-length documentary in history. This despite a campaign against the film by the White House and its surrogates. Everyone expected George Bush's media shills to go after Moore, but who would have thought Fox News would keep its attack dogs relatively muzzled while ABC and NBC launched remarkably unbalanced attacks.

So far, Fox's main complaint is that Moore won't give them an interview. However, he did allow himself to be interrogated by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week. During that chat, he addressed his critics' major points. Take the fact that Saudi nationals, including members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the United States after 9-11 even though all commercial flights were grounded. Moore implies that the president cleared those flights because of family business ties to the Saudis. But Richard Clarke, the former security adviser—and prominent Bush critic—insists it was he who authorized the flights. When Stephanopoulos brought this up, Moore replied that Clarke's decision had been an error, adding that Clarke has admitted making mistakes "and he apologized to the 9-11 families for those mistakes."

Maybe this was an evasion, maybe not; but it certainly constituted a response, and ABC could easily have included it in subsequent news stories about Fahrenheit 9/11. Instead, the network launched a two-pronged attack on the film's accuracy—one that advanced from Good Morning America to World News Tonight—without giving Moore a fair chance to respond to the most damaging claims. Both segments began with the graphic "Fact or Fiction?"—the journalistic equivalent of asking a defendant when he stopped beating his wife. Both relied heavily on Clarke's statements and let them go unanswered.

"My feeling is that ABC News gave Michael Moore a fair chance to respond," says Bridgette Maney, the publicist for Good Morning America. ABC News spokesperson Cathie Levine noted that World News Tonight had run a clip from the Stephanopoulos interview after airing Clarke's statement. But that clip did not contain Moore's response to Clarke's comments.

NBC ran highly negative assessments of the film on both its Nightly News and its cable channel MSNBC. The network referred to its coverage as a "truth squad report." As part of this exposé, senior correspondent Lisa Myers targeted the hilarious moment in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Moore asks legislators to sign up their children to fight in Iraq. Myers noted that Moore had failed to include comments by Republican congressmember Mark Kennedy, who appears in that scene looking baffled. "My nephew had just gotten called into service and was told he's heading for Afghanistan," Kennedy told Myers. "He [Moore] didn't like that answer, so he didn't include it." Moore had addressed this allegation in the Stephanopoulos interview: "When we interviewed [Kennedy], he didn't have any family members in Afghanistan. . . . We released the transcript and put it on our website." But NBC made no mention of these readily available rebuttals. (A network spokesman declined to comment.)

Note that none of the facts in Fahrenheit 9/11 are in dispute. What ABC and NBC called into question is Moore's extrapolation and interpretation of information; in other words, his slant. But by using loaded phrases like "truth squad" and "fact or fiction," and by omitting Moore's answers to key questions, these networks did the very thing they accuse him of doing. I would argue that this sort of distortion is far more dangerous in the context of a news broadcast than in a clearly opinionated film.

Why did NBC and ABC take the administration's line? Well, NBC is owned by General Electric, a prime defense contractor. ABC is owned by Disney, which has no need of Pentagon largesse—but Disney is dependent on the kindness of federal regulators, and to the Bush administration those mouse ears have a lot to answer for. After all, it was Disney subsidiary Miramax that initially planned to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11, and even after the studio pulled out under pressure from the parent company, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein formed a consortium of companies to release the film. Last Thursday's Wall Street Journal reported that Disney may sever its ties with Miramax next year. And Disney is about to release a feel-good documentary called America's Heart and Soul. With its theme parks under siege for allowing desecrations of family values, such as Gay Day, Disney has much to gain by joining the attack on Moore's movie, which is regarded in certain congregations as the Great R-Rated Satan.

But how to account for Fox's relatively merciful coverage (or the exceedingly odd editorial in Monday's New York Post defending Moore from the Federal Election Commission's attempt to muzzle his ads)? Here's my explanation: Rupert Murdoch is covering his ass in case John Kerry wins. For that matter, his news machine doesn't have to prove itself to the Bushies—and besides, an attack from Fox would have easily been dismissed as partisan. Better to let NBC and ABC lend the imprimatur of their "objectivity." I'm not saying these networks acted in cahoots; they merely expressed their interests.

That may explain why CNN, whose audience skews slightly leftward, took a careful pro-and-con approach to Fahrenheit 9/11, as did CBS News. Was CBS's neutrality a reflection of its traditional resistance to the right; was it part of a bid for the sizable anti-Bush audience; or is the network's owner, Viacom, banking on an advantage in a Kerry administration? Maybe all of the above.

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