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Remember When Fox News Used To Pretend It Wasn't A Political Operation?

By Ryan Grim for Huffington Post

Ten years ago, documentary maker Robert Greenwald released a film with a controversial premise: Fox News Channel is not a reliable media outlet but rather a partisan political operation.

At the time “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” came out, Fox News (slogan: "Fair & Balanced") was widely considered part of the normal media. Sure, the cable channel was known to lean conservative, and some of its primetime hosts, such as Bill O’Reilly, were clearly conservative in their personal views. But the network worked extremely hard to distinguish between its opinionated evening hosts and its fair and balanced correspondents and daytime anchors. Its reputation was policed by a ferocious public relations team that scoured the media for any references to Fox as right-leaning or conservative, demanding corrections or clarifications.

Since 2004, Fox has dropped the pretense. “I want to elect the next president,” Fox News honcho Roger Ailes said in 2010.

On the 10-year anniversary of his film, The Huffington Post spoke with Greenwald about what it’s been like to take on Fox News, the Koch brothers, Walmart and, more recently, President Barack Obama. This interview has been edited for clarity and vanity.

Was "Outfoxed" controversial at the time?

It was not only controversial, but we were attacked -- including by Democratic elected officials and liberal folks who said, “Oh, they're not that bad. That's just one or two commentators.” What we had done that hadn't been done was extensive monitoring and having those amazing volunteers spend weeks and months collecting clips. And then as more and more people saw the film, slowly things began to change.

But it also was a different media environment. There was no Huffington Post, no MSNBC, and almost every TV or radio interview I did initially was centered on these critical attacks. Again, over time that shifted, but it was initially a challenge.

What was it about the media and political environment that allowed things to happen on Fox that people never noticed? What has changed?

Well, I think it's two things. One is that people began to understand in general this is what they do, and then a whole -- I mean this in a good way -- a whole industry of people who watch Fox, who criticize Fox and attack Fox, call out Fox, has been built. And that's been very helpful. We were just absolutely thrilled to see so many children spawned from the "Outfoxed" movie who now have spent years taking them on and really totally changing people's perception.

How have you seen Fox respond to that?

Initially with the film it was actually quite interesting, because the first couple of days, O'Reilly particularly and others were trashing me and trashing the show. And clearly they got a memo: Shut up. Which is generally their approach when they don't want to respond to criticism. ... What they generally do is they bully people, and they got away with it for a while. They would bully other journalists, threaten them and said they will cut off access.

But today they have been pretty much in the bunkers with the tea party, and their ratings are fine and they're charging enough to all the other cable companies. So they don't really seem particularly worried about keeping up the appearance that they aren't fair and balanced.

I referred to them as a “conservative news outlet” in print in 2007 or 2008 when writing for Politico, and they complained for days and kept asking for corrections. I don't ever hear about that kind of thing happening with Fox anymore.

I think they have accepted it and gone even further with some of their folks appearing at tea party rallies. I'm sure part of it was ideological and part of it was business. I feel that they were afraid that being painted as too partisan would cost them with viewers, it would cost them with access to cable companies and with advertisers. That’s no longer the universe we are in, so it doesn't seem to matter. The challenge for them will be the aging of the audience.

Is there any comparison between the reaction to some of your more recent productions and the reaction to the Fox film?

When we got attacked by the Koch brothers [over the 2012 documentary "Koch Brothers Explosed,"] we had gone out before anyone knew who Koch was. They took out these little ads, Internet ads, with a picture of me -- and I'm not going to win any beauty contest to begin with -- but anyway they found a photo and made me look like a really scary terrorist. It said -- I don't really remember, but it's a series of insults in these little ads and my picture, and it would follow you all over the Internet. So it was my daughter who came to me and said, "Papa, every place I go online I see a picture of you." It was irritating at the time. It reminded me of a Fox technique in the sense that they were personalizing it and they were going right at me and they were spending money to do it.

It was a little different and somewhat similar with Walmart when I did the Walmart film [a 2005 documentary titled "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price"]. Walmart set up a war room, and they financed a whole pro-Walmart film to go after it. They too personalized it when they found every bad review I have ever gotten on every commercial, TV or movie -- and I have gotten plenty of bad reviews. I couldn't figure out why they were doing that and why the Koch brothers were doing it, and then we sought out some research and found out that they actually hire political folks, something you do in political campaigns, where you go out and smear the opposing candidate.

You've also taken on liberals with "Rethink Afghanistan," "Unmanned: America's Drone Wars" and "War on Whistleblowers," which challenged the Obama administration on a range of foreign policy issues.

I was surprised at the Afghanistan response. I've been to Afghanistan. It's in the middle of this horrible war, but if you're in Kabul for a day and you look around, you see the poverty, people with little to eat, no health care, teachers and this obvious stuff. It doesn't take a genius to see that these things are needed, and then you see our incredibly expensive military and tanks rolling down the street with people cowering in fear. So I get back with that in mind. It seemed very evident and clear to me that it wasn't civil war, it wasn't life, it wasn't a question of security.

When we did the first short pieces and then the [2009] film around "Rethink Afghanistan," this was soon after Obama was in office, and the nature of the attacks was the strongest we've ever had from liberals, from the Democratic Party and, frankly, funders. It was the biggest single hit to our funding that we ever took. People were saying, "Obama's in office" and "How could you do this?" That was one of the reasons we were asked to leave the Democracy Alliance.

So that response surprised me. With drones, I knew that people would be unhappy. Sadly with drones -- unlike Afghanistan, where you could say a lot of it was [George W.] Bush -- drones was and is President Obama. But I think that by then [in 2013,] the bloom was off and so people were upset, but they weren't as angry. They didn't want to attack me or cut off our funding.

What about the documentary on whistleblowers?

With "Whistleblowers" [in 2013], we had so many reputable journalists at the time. You have all those great people -- Dana Priest and Jane Mayer and Bill Keller, who is hardly a radical -- that it made it harder for people to say, "Oh, Obama’s really doing the right thing." Also, I think by then it was clearer and clearer to liberals and others that the president was not going to challenge national security policy in any way and that he seemed to be quite supportive of expanding its power in multiple ways.