Close the Barn Door

A respected tv writer reviews Outfoxed. We review his review.

Aaron Barnhart, proprietor of the TV Barn website, writes for the Kansas City Star. He has just posted his thoughts on Outfoxed, but did he approach this production with the skeptical eye of a long-time television critic?

He makes the usual pro-forma comments about the slapdash production quality and low budget, but is enraptured with the central thesis:
“Outfoxed” presents a pretty damning brief against Fox News Channel....Greenwald’s use of effective, especially when he follows an excerpt from a Moody morning memo with footage of Fox anchors basically parroting his company line.

Mr Barnhart does not so much as raise an eyebrow about the choice of memos by Robert "Xanadu" Greenwald; not even a suggestion that the memos carefully picked to showcase might not be representative. And what of that footage of reporters "parroting" the company line? Let's go to the Outfoxed transcript:

REPORTER: If you want to destroy jobs in this country - you raise taxes.

Now we assume Mr Barnhart is a smart guy; he didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Does he really accept at face value that a reporter would make such an opinionated statement? If Mr Barnhart had done some fact-checking, perhaps he would have learned that this clip was doctored. This was not Carl Cameron giving his own opinion--Cameron was reporting on a statement from Commerce Secretary Don Evans, only that part of his sentence was snipped out by Mr Xanadu. How "damning" is the brief now?

Neither does Mr Barnhart comment on Greenwald's repeated use of Sean Hannity "countdowns" to the election of George Bush; a few instances:

VOICE-OVER: 204 days until George W Bush is re-elected.
VOICE-OVER: Only 217 days and counting until Bush is re-elected.
VOICE-OVER: Just 263 days until you get to cast your vote and decide George W Bush deserves a second term.

Does Mr Barnhart ever watch Fox News? If so, how can he not know that for every time Sean Hannity does one of these little intros, Alan Colmes does one too, counting down to the election of John Kerry? They alternate. Outfoxed doesn't tell the viewer this. Does Mr Barnhart consider this deceptive editing part of the "damning indictment"?

Mr B then swallows whole the video's weakly documented slander of Carl Cameron:
And as for those puff pieces asserting that Fox News Washington correspondent Carl Cameron is not the political partisan that “Outfoxed” makes him out to be … pffffft. All anyone has to do is witness the outtake of him chattily discussing his wife’s work on the Bush-Cheney campaign with then-candidate Bush mere seconds before their interview.

Mr Barnhart offers no specific criticism of Cameron's reporting; to him, just this exchange renders any such examples irrelevant. Now some of our regular readers bear with us for a moment please; this is for the benefit of Mr Barnhart and those who call themselves critics but can't grasp the concept of "trust, but verify". Let's go to the transcript of the Cameron-Bush exchange:

CAMERON: My wife has been hanging out with your sister [Dorothy "Doro" Bush].
BUSH: Yeah good. My county...
CAMERON: Dorothy has been all over the state campaigning and Pauline's been constantly with her.

What have we learned here? Dorothy has been "campaigning" and Pauline Cameron was "hanging out" with Dorothy and "constantly with her". Does it tell us that Pauline was engaged in "work on the Bush-Cheney campaign", as Mr Barnhart put it?

BUSH: Yeah, Doro's a good person.
CAMERON: Oh, she's been terrific. I mean, to hear Pauline tell it. When she first started campaigning for you, she was a little bit nervous.

Note who they are talking about when Cameron says "she's been terrific"--Dorothy. Cameron then attributes that judgment to Pauline ("I mean, to hear Pauline tell it.") So who is the "she" who was nervous "when she first started campaigning for you"? Who is the only person either Cameron or Bush said was campaigning? Dorothy Bush.

BUSH: She's getting her stride.
CAMERON: Now she's up there. She doesn't need notes. She's going to crowds and she's got the whole riff down.
BUSH: She's a good soul.

There is no reason to construe the above as anything other than more discussion of Dorothy Bush's campaigning. But to implant a different interpretation in the minds of unwary viewers, Mr Xanadu prefaced the exchange with a portentious statement from the Ominous Anonymous Voice-Over:

It was well known in the summer of 2000 that Fox's lead political correspondent covering the Bush campaign, that his wife was campaigning for Bush.

Note how Mr Ominous Anonymous Voice-Over uses the word "campaigning" in order to make a link with the Cameron-Bush exchange, even though they were most likely not referencing Pauline Cameron at all but rather the President's sister! This little trick seems to have escaped Mr Barnhart.

And if it was so "well known" in 2000, then where was it reported? Why not zoom in on a column by Howard Kurtz or some other media writer, exposing this shocking fact? Oh...well, how about interviewing other reporters following the campaign who saw Pauline "working on" the Bush campaign? Hmm...OK, then why not some grainy video footage of Mrs Cameron working the crowds? Could it be because there isn't any?

Mr Xanadu couldn't be bothered to verify any of this--it was a story "too good to check". He didn't even bother to ask Dorothy Bush, or Carl Cameron, or Pauline for that matter. Real journalists, like Howard Kurtz and Joe Kagan, were not so lazy--they actually bothered to ask a few questions ("Carl Cameron Boxes Outfoxed").

Time again to play Let's Assume. Let's assume Pauline Cameron was campaigning for Bush, even though there is zero evidence that she did. Unless you assume that wives are not separate people but merely robotic servants for the wishes of their husbands, how does that show Cameron to be the "partisan" Mr Barnhart portrays him as being? Are we to assume that Greta van Susteren--who anchors more hours of Fox's convention coverage than anyone else--is a hopeless partisan because she is married to one of John Kerry's top fund-raisers? And if so, why have Mr Barnhart and Mr Xanadu been silent on the subject?

Barnhart adds:
It doesn’t get any cozier than that.

It doesn't? Reporters never make small talk before starting an interview? This example was so egregious that it is the World's Coziest Pre-Interview Chit-Chat Ever? I don't think so.

Mr Barnhart is to be commended for not buying into Outfoxed's absurd contention that the phrase "some people say" is an insidious trick patented by Fox News. He actually cites examples of reporters at other networks using the exact same formulation. (A clever idea, if we do say so ourselves.) But perhaps if Mr B had done a little more research, he would not still be referring to Pauline as "Cameron's wife"; he would not have accepted the editing tricks in Outfoxed at face value; and he would have found the "pretty damning brief" presented by this little video to be almost entirely smoke and mirrors.

posted: Mon - August 23, 2004 at 11:53 AM       j$p  send