Sunday, September 05, 2004

Outfoxed and Bush's Brain

In the last couple of weeks I have watched in the theatre a couple of nonfiction films about politics in the U.S., Outfoxed and Bush's Brain.

Outfoxed looks at Fox News Network, its extreme right-wing bias, and its impact on the national media environment and political scene. Bush's Brain is about Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief political advisor, and is based on a book of the same name. Like any watchable nonfiction film, they are both a mixture of documentary and polemic.

I'm glad I went to see them but I think it is important to see their limitations: Both flow from the same analysis, the same narrative, and it is one that is distinctly limited in its vision for change. This narrative says, more or less explicitly, that the Republican Party and other arms of the right in the U.S. are breaking the accepted rules of politics to their own advantage and the detriment of everyone else. The unspoken corollary of this narrative is that "the rules" are the historically accepted conventions that facilitate competition among strands of acceptable elite opinion while excluding options and agendas that fall outside of that consensus range.

In terms of the North American mass media, terms like "objectivity" and "balance" have been defined (not through conspiracy, but through the way the related institutions function) in reference to this range of elite opinion, to the exclusion of historically marginalized voices and oppressed people. This has been heavily documented in Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent and lots of other places. The essential message of Outfoxed is that Fox News has the nerve to "cheat" by using different standards for what constitutes acceptable knowledge and different ways of defining balance in order to marginalize not just those people who the mainstream media marginalizes all the time anyway but also one part of that spectrum of elite opinion. The film shows some of Fox's excesses, but does so largely in a way that is uncritical of and therefore ultimately supportive of the elite-centric consensus frame that passes for objectivity in the rest of the mass mainstream media. (If you look closely, you can see that some of the people interviewed in Outfoxed actually do have the more rigorous, more radical critique of media, but that was not explored at all by the film, and not really distinguished from the "they don't have enough Democrats on" whine of the rest.)

In Bush's Brain the focus on machinations in electoral politics, and the bottom line seems to be that Rove's dirty tricks are dirtier than the acceptable level of dirtiness found in most other campaign managers' dirty playbook of dirty tricks. Though the glimpse it provides of the operation of power at this level is interesting and instructive as far as it goes, the lesson that Dubya is able to do bad things because Karl Rove is a very smart, very bad man is really rather narrow. There is not even a hint of critique of the systemic context that allows Rove's skullduggery to so impact the fate of the world.

It reminds me of an observation I once read about Watergate -- I don't remember where I read it, but I think it was made by Noam Chomsky. He pointed out that Watergate was treated as a scandal by the media because it was one elite institution (the Republican Party) engaging in behaviour beyond the normal conventions for political competition (by spying) against another elite institution (the Democratic Party). He points out that the Socialist Workers Party were targeted with this kind of behaviour and worse for decades by the FBI, despite being a legal organization that did not engage in or advocate criminal activity, and this was not only okay but not even worthy of notice because their politics were outside the range of elite consensus.

I want to reiterate that both films are interesting as far as they go. I had never watched Fox News so Outfoxed gave me the opportunity to see Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly in action -- is it just me or do they remind you of muppets? Really nasty muppets without much of a sense of humour, that is. And though Karl Rove is a key figure in the shadows of the current administration in the country in which I know reside, I really didn't know much about him before I saw Bush's Brain.

In engaging with these films, I'm actually thinking of things that Z blogger Justin Podur said about Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, particularly in response to a critique of it by Robert Jensen that I linked to in an earlier post. Podur asys:

The reason I am very happy to see the film getting the response that it does isn't because it reflects my politics. It doesn't. But, agreeing with all of Robert Jensen's criticisms, I found it to be far less of an assault on my dignity than the nightly news with Lou Dobbs on CNN (we don't get Fox News in Canada), and I found it outright refreshing in parts.

I don't think of Michael Moore as part of the 'left'. He is part of the mainstream, and, to my mind, the healthiest part, the part that is genuinely trying to be decent. That's why I think of him as becoming the 'official opposition' in the United States. Of course we need to go well beyond 'official opposition' and Michael Moore's movie. But on the spectrum of developments in mainstream, white America, I think the massive popularity and visibility of this film is a positive development. Of course I would much rather it was the 'left' reaching all those millions of people than the film, but that we aren't isn't Moore's fault, but our own.

The response might well be that I don't understand mainstream America or the 'left' very well, that my expectations of Moore or the 'left' or the US are far too low. It could be that I watch too many bad movies and too much bad television and have developed too calloused a skin for the racism and sexism in all of it that I just filter it out and look for what's good. But really, what I like best about the movie is that Michael Moore doesn't need the left to rally around him (he doesn't deserve it either -- the part where I agree with Jensen -- but that's a different issue). He will do just fine without any such rallying. And so, while I wouldn't even think to lift a finger to rally around the film or Moore, I do wish both well.

Outfoxed and Bush's Brain are also from the part of the mainstream that is trying to be decent and healthy, and they more or less contribute to the role of official opposition that is being spearheaded this election season not by the Democratic Party but by Farenheit 9/11. But though I wish them well, I also wish even more fervently for success in the ongoing efforts of those of us who wish to assemble facts and create narratives and analyses that go beyond the limited goal of "official opposition."

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