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INTERVIEW: How Did We Get Here? Tracing the Rise of Fox’s Right-Wing Media Empire

By Allegra Kirkland for AlterNet

Think back to the heady days of July 2004. Presidential campaign season was in full swing, with John Kerry and John Edwards joining forces against the Bush ticket. The media obsession of the summer was Kerry’s uneven voting record, with new headlines emerging almost weekly even as George Bush quietly continued setting the county on fire. In the midst of this mayhem, director Robert Greenwald and his team at Brave New Films released Outfoxed, a documentary that exposed the concerted efforts of Fox News to promote a partisan Republican agenda through the guise of a traditional news service. It’s been 10 years since that seminal film was released. AlterNet caught up with Greenwald to chat about how American politics has evolved—or devolved—over the last decade.

Allegra Kirkland: How do you think the political landscape has changed since Outfoxedwas released? Many would agree that it’s more polarized, but how have you observed American politics progressing since 2004?

Robert Greenwald: Certainly there’s no doubt and all the data supports the fact that the conservative ideology has become increasingly extreme, angry and mean-spirited in terms of its venomous attacks on people who have less and could use the protections and safety that government can provide. The absolute ruthlessness, in terms of strangling those who don’t have the resources, has been astounding and troubling. And it has, unfortunately, moved the political landscape more and more to the right.

At the same time, people are having very painful, very personal experiences with rising inequality, combined with the painful losses suffered from wars we never should have been in, military actions we never should have taken, trillions of dollars we never should have spent. I think those two together—inequality and the disgust with the military-industrial-congressional complex—can and will lead to change for the better.

AK: So you’re hopeful?

RG: Very. I’m not hopeful based on where we are, because it is deeply troubling when you see your friends, neighbors, family and colleagues suffering from this awful inequality and when you talk to people who had friends and family members killed or injured in the wars. What’s in front of us is not to be celebrated, but I believe that the power of those two trends is so strong that we will see movement towards positive change.

AK: What sort of reaction did Outfoxed receive when it was first released? What impact did you hope it would have?

RG: The impact we were looking for was not to get the people who love Fox and watch it 24 hours a day to stop watching. The goal was very clear and specific. It was to investigate, explain and show people, and particularly other media, that Fox was not a news source but had a particular partisan agenda. For too long many well-intentioned people in the traditional media would follow Fox when they would get on a particular story and relentlessly pound and pound at it. What we wanted the film to do was to begin the process—and it’s a long process—of exposing how they function and what they do, and to make clear to other media that they should not be encouraging the Fox effect.

The secondary goal was to make that clear to elected officials and even to many well-intentioned liberals who were saying, well it’s okay, it’s really just Hannity and O’Reilly that are the problem. What we did with the film was say, no, it isn’t just the commentators; what is much more devastating is the partisan nature of the so-called news operation.

AK: As you mentioned, Outfoxed focuses a lot on messaging. You demonstrate how Fox encourages anchors to harp on specific narratives, like John Kerry being a "flip-flopper," that would then be discussed as legitimate talking points on other news outlets. Do you think the progressive and mainstream media have gotten better at avoiding using right-wing frames?

RG: In terms of Fox, I think that there’s no question that they are viewed radically differently now than when we first did the film—everything from the president and the press secretary taking them on directly and criticizing them to the fact that they’ve become a joke from Stewart to Colbert to Bill Maher. That’s been very helpful and very important. What we’ve been able to do with Outfoxed and what we try to do with all of our films is to get out there, investigate and show people something they didn’t know, and then encourage many other groups to pile on and weigh in and use the frames and clips that we’re talking about.

Over the years, we’ve seen tremendous groups follow our lead and have a real impact on this. We haven’t by any means solved the media problem, nor have we stopped some folks from still accepting what Fox says, but I think we’ve seen a huge, radical sea change from when we did the film.  

AK: Your film’s release coincided with the rise of social networking and of the Internet becoming ubiquitous in most American homes. Do you think these new sources of information have democratized how we receive news since what we consume is no longer just dictated by cable networks like Fox? Or is it still a problem because people tend to gravitate toward publications that are aligned with their political beliefs?

RG: I think that the question of how you reach people who are low-information folks or who don’t agree with you or who are persuadables is a very important, ongoing discussion, and it is one that we at Brave New Films spend hours thinking about on a regular basis. The fact of the Internet, the fact that clips can be downloaded and passed around, the fact that one can provide evidence of what people say and do has been very helpful. There still are challenges about the size and scope of how you reach persuadables and the best way to reach persuadables…We believe strongly in the ability of film and of personal stories. Others argue for more of a traditional list of facts as a way to persuade people. We’ll be looking back 10 years from today and there’ll be a lot of progress in understanding it all.

AK: How does MSNBC fit in? The network had a rocky transition from being a middle-of-the-road news network in the mid-2000s to expressly communicating a progressive perspective by 2010. Do you think it’s okay for publications to express a specific ideology as long as they’re explicit about it?

RG: My objection with Fox News has always been calling it “Fox News,” calling it “fair and balanced.” That’s quite brilliant marketing by Roger Ailes, who is a political operative and has found a way to operate politically under the guise of the network. He’s done it well and our job has been to investigate and expose.

AK: Half of Fox’s viewers are 68 and older. But most cable news channels, like CNN and MSNBC, also have older audiences. Do you think that the networks will have to change their tactics as they try to attract new, younger viewers?

RG: There was a recent study that said most of—at least half—of the country now gets some of their news from Facebook, which means friends are forwarding or posting clips or excerpts or interviews or articles, and the profound nature of that is really just beginning to become clearer to people.

The major networks will always have a significant role in large national events: crises, elections, sporting events. But they’ll have a continued diminishing role on the day-to-day, week in and week out consumption of information where the landscape, as it already is, will become increasingly segmented and increasingly niche-oriented. There will be a day when there will be a channel for soccer-playing, motorcycle-riding nuns, and we’ll be figuring out how we message them as opposed to other groups.

But the days of one-stop media shopping are over, and even with our films today, we use 20, 30 different ways of reaching the audience. That’s everything from posting the entire film to posting 30-second excerpts to 15-second Vines to Twitter to Facebook to Instagram; it’s much more difficult and complicated but it’s essential. If you want to reach people, you have to adapt to the ways they consume information.

AK: Do you think that the progressive media are at an inherent disadvantage because they don’t have such a hierarchical approach to disseminating the news? Fox requires anchors to adhere to the “theme of the day” spin memos sent by network higher-ups, but liberal outlets seem skeptical of expressing a monolithic network-wide perspective.

RG: I think within the sphere of progressive media, there is such a wide variety of players and so many different formats and platforms and methods of financing. Over the next period of time we will see increasing differences in the way AlterNet treats a story versus how MSNBC treats a story. That will increase because of the nature of the specific platform and of that institution’s responsibility. Is it their responsibility to return a profit, which is one clear set of goals, or is it to create impact, which is another set of goals.

We’re very fortunate at Brave New Films to be a non-profit so our goal is impact, not monetization. We’ve actually been able to offer our most recent films for free, which is phenomenal. Millions of people will be seeing them because the films are free, short segments are free and they will be shown for free at house parties. That opens up a whole world of really amazing possibilities.

AK: So is that mostly what you’re working on now—getting the word out about Koch Brothers Exposed?

RG: Yes, Move On held the house parties last weekend and we’re getting the word out about that. So even as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Outfoxed we’re continuing to work on Koch Brothers, on Unmanned, our film about drones, on the privatization of the prison industry and what the profit motive is doing to private prisons and private probation. We’ll also be expanding our work around inequality.

AK: Can you imagine doing a followup film on the media or do you have more pressing interests you want to pursue?

RG: I can imagine doing many films, and when I wake up at three in the morning the list grows and grows. The question is resources. Every time we decide to do one film it means 25 other ones don’t get done. So the list of possibilities is endless. It’s a matter of choosing where we can have the most impact, where we can do something that’s not being done, where we can lay down tracks, guidelines and frames that others can then follow.

 Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Inc., Daily Serving and the Nation.