From Jim Gilliam's blog archivesRobert's LA Times interview
July 18, 2004 11:54 AM
Today's LA Times:
Hounding Fox about alleged bias; Robert Greenwald is in a legal and media dispute over his film about the news channel. He says the network is a GOP mouthpiece.
LA Times, 7/18/2004
Before Sept. 11, director-producer Robert Greenwald was churning out TV movies infused with social messages -- spousal abuse in "The Burning Bed," alcoholism in "Shattered Spirits," teen pregnancy in "Daddy" -- and a few feature films, such as the Abbie Hoffman biopic "Steal This Movie." Like much of liberal Hollywood, he also helped support social programs on the side such as those that address gang violence or runaways.
After the attacks, Greenwald put his commercial skills where his politics were. While still working in Hollywood, he also signed on to produce "Unprecedented," about the 2000 election debacle in Florida, for financially strapped documentarians Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler.
Last year, he finished his first documentary, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," a film that uses interviews with experienced civil servants to challenge the Bush administration's grounds for going to war. That film sold 55,000 DVDs over the Internet and will get limited theatrical distribution Aug. 13.
His latest project, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," finds him at the center of a political and media controversy. Constructed from unlicensed clips, internal memos and interviews with former employees, the film paints Fox News Channel as a right-wing news bully that spreads misinformation to the point of undermining democracy. Must a partisan filmmaker play fair when he's castigating a network for being partisan?
Even before the first "Outfoxed" screening Tuesday in New York, Fox fought back with a defiant press release. It dismissed the movie as unfair and inaccurate, specifically condemning Greenwald and financial partner MoveOn.org for "illegal copyright infringement." A New York Times story on the film corrupts "the journalistic process," it said.
Greenwald admits he never found a "smoking gun" that proves a direct relationship between Fox News and the Republican Party, but he insists his film establishes patterns that make the connection. The movie, which will be screened at MoveOn.org house parties tonight, also will be released immediately on DVD.
A boyish 58, Greenwald has an elfish air and multitasks energetically. There's a brace on his forearm to treat the carpal tunnel syndrome he developed replying to 150 e-mails a day about "Outfoxed." He laughs easily, pausing to rethink words that will be used for public consumption. The native New Yorker and confessed workaholic answered questions in his street-level office in Culver City.
Why take on Fox?
When I was working on "Uncovered," I was so struck by essentially the narrow viewpoints we were given about the war. On one extreme, it was the demonizing of anyone who resisted the war. That made me so much more conscious of the role that the media plays in general in the forming of people's opinion in a democracy. In a totalitarian society, you accept there's no free media, and you learn code, how to interpret what's going on. The fact that we weren't getting other opinions is a pretty devastating critique of the world we're in. Over time the notion of media control emerged, and Fox became the centerpiece of that.
"Outfoxed" asserts that Fox News isn't as "fair and balanced" as it markets itself. Is your film fair and balanced? Did you ask anybody from Fox to appear?
Definitely not. For two reasons: They have a network, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that gives us their opinion. They can go on all the time, pounding and bellowing, giving their viewpoint. I can never even the score. So I don't feel any need to say, 'What do you think?'
No. 2, this movie couldn't have been made without clips from Fox News. If I had asked permission, for sure they would have said, "No." And they very well could have tried to stop me with legal means.
Do you need their permission legally?
That hasn't been resolved. We're in uncharted territory.
You've mentioned your father and your children as motivating your work.
When my father died four years ago, I was conscious of having a complicated relationship with him, of not wanting to idealize him but wanting to do more in the world of social justice to carry on the best parts of him. I have four kids (aged 7 to 28), and I'm very involved with all four of them. I'm very conscious of doing, in whatever small way -- you don't want to be grandiose about it -- something to change the world for the better. Then came the 9/11 thing. I don't think I'm a pacifist, but the immediate response of "kill 'em, burn 'em, torture 'em, bomb 'em" was so off the charts. I can't look at myself in the mirror if I don't put some time and energy into trying to counter some of this.
What's it like making your case with a documentary as opposed to a feature film?
For $250,000, doing something about the war is very different and gives you a greater freedom in a sense because you don't have financial responsibilities. You don't have partners who need certain commercial requirements met. That allows me to do these films pretty much in whatever way I think they can be most effective.
One of the things that's happened with these films is that it's taken my passion and my belief in films to another level. These small, inexpensive movies can have tremendous effect. And it's partly because they're movies. It's not reading a book about the reasons that we're given for going to war and whether they were right or wrong. It's seeing the president talk about it, and then seeing somebody else who you know has worked on it for 30 years say that's not right. Similarly with "Outfoxed," there's no way it could be text because you have to see them, hear the music, see the graphics. You have to look at the body language. You have to put all the cuts together. To me, that's pure filmmaking.
Whose responsibility is it to check the accuracy of your facts and sources?
The whole team. Myself, three or four co-producers, in particular Jim Gilliam [a 26-year-old dot-com veteran], who's a brilliant research person. It's easier in "Outfoxed." There's not a whole lot of facts. I definitely [wasn't neutral] with Murdoch. So Jim would go through the stuff, some of these studies, he would make sure we were getting it right, that the interpretation was accurate and that they were valid and the backup was good. There were some accusations against Murdoch that we checked and couldn't prove so we didn't put them in. Getting the ex-Foxies to talk was a big challenge. People are terrified about [Fox News chief executive] Roger Ailes.
They don't work for him anymore.
They say, "He'll blacklist me. He'll come after me. He's Tony Soprano. Don't ever call me again. You can call me at home, but only on Sunday morning. You can't e-mail me. They check e-mails." It was wild. They were much more scared than the people were in speaking out against Bush or Cheney.
A lot of politically like-minded organizations have given you awards for your work. Is it a shock to get out there and find out there are people who love Fox and not you?
I went on a bunch of those radio shows with "Uncovered" and was attacked. I'm from New York. It didn't bother me. I was brought up with confrontation as a sport -- argument, testing, challenging from my grandfather and my uncle. When these people come on the shows and yell and scream, it just doesn't faze me. I know if I could just say the right thing, I could change their opinion. [laughs]
How has the Internet altered your ability to effect change?
You're talking to somebody who two years ago couldn't figure out how to use e-mail and who now has carpal tunnel. It has totally changed in that these films would not be getting out to people the way they're getting out without the Internet.
The "Outfoxed" website has links to political and media groups. Obviously, the film isn't an end in itself.
That was the big lesson from "Uncovered." These movies, if done properly, can be engines for change if we think of them as not just opening a movie but as launching campaigns. In that sense, they're vehicles. With "Uncovered," we fell into it. No one thought it would be this successful -- not only the number of people who've seen it, but the number of politicians who've quoted from it. The hope is that people will use the website. So when they see a movie, they don't just say, "Oh, I'm [incensed]." There are outlets.
Do you want your films to affect the election?
There are the elections, but the way you have long-term success is by creating institutions to create change. I'm going to start a media company now. What I've been doing is catch as catch can. I want to try now to create a small group of people who can continue to make documentaries, short films, do videos, tape conferences and help organizations that need these things. I want to do it with the big issues but also with the grass roots.
Did Michael Moore steal your thunder by making his case against the war, "Fahrenheit 9/11," in a more popular, entertaining way?
I had a particular goal in mind when I did "Uncovered" and it was to use these people [former CIA employees] who could not be discounted to shift the argument. The reason I started the movie with their credentials was so that you couldn't look at it and say, "That leftist pinko Commie." You can disagree, but you couldn't put it in that little box.
At the end of "Outfoxed," Eric Clapton's "Layla" plays under some stirring words about truth and justice. Do these times recall the heady days of the '60s and '70s for you?
Not for me. I wasn't involved enough.... Working on the Abbie Hoffman movie did change me. I feel Abby's influence quite a bit. He wanted to do social change, but he talks about how the revolution should be fun.
More from the archive in Outfoxed.
Robert's LA Times interview (07.18.2004)