'Outfoxed' and Ideology
Produced in 2004, ‘Outfoxed’ (Greenwald, 2004) is as relevant as ever in an age of ‘Fake News’, where suspicion of the media is becoming normalised through criticism of what exactly is reported, and the techniques used in this process. The power the media possesses is massive; it is, for the majority of the population, the only way to access information about current affairs (Lisle, 2013), shaping how we as individuals react politically in response to certain events.
This documentary sheds light on practices of manipulation of information by the media – specifically, how Fox News became a mouthpiece for the Bush administration and shaped discourses in American politics to favour conservative viewpoints. With reference to the Iraq War, 9/11, and both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections, ‘Outfoxed’ offers a comprehensive view on exactly how the Murdoch press was used as a tool to praise the Republican Party and dispel any negativity surrounding their policies. Rather than being ‘Fair and Balanced’, as per Fox’s slogan, their news reporting was anything but.
Principally composed of a series of short interviews with former Fox News journalists, activists, and politicians (including Senator Bernie Sanders), interspersed with footage from Fox News broadcasts to accompany the content of these interviews, ‘Outfoxed’ details exactly how Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and many other media organisations, was able to shape the American political climate through the use of certain questionable reporting techniques. Each of these are either entirely hidden from the public, operating as a series of orders by editors and executives, or very subtle, preserving a façade of impartiality and truthful reporting.
The first technique outlined is the use of a ‘Daily Message’. A set of instructions given by a senior editor to a reporting team, it details exactly what should be covered, and more importantly how to report certain information. Specific language often plays a vital role in how a report pans out. The labelling of American soldiers in Iraq as ‘sharpshooters’ as opposed to ‘snipers’, in order to explicitly avoid associating the American military with the brutal and malicious connotations of ‘sniper’ is an excellent example of this, thus improving the public’s perception of the military and consequently leading to more support for American bellicosity. More than any other technique, the ‘Daily Message’ represents direct top-down control, allowing media institutions to be used as a means to promote certain agendas.
Crafty use of expert panels was, and continues to be, a signature technique used by Fox News. There are a number of layers to this. Firstly, the reputation of experts varies vastly between conservative and liberal viewpoints. Conservative commentators were often high-ranking public office holders, outspoken journalists, or other strong establishment members. On the other hand, progressive panellists were far less experienced in managing themselves in media appearances, and having equally less experience in relevant political or media institutions. Additionally, the commentators presented as ‘liberal’ often held conservative viewpoints on many issues, being termed ‘faux-liberal’ by multiple interviewees in ‘Outfoxed’. Anyone who slipped through the cracks in Fox’s expert selection process and presented a strong alternative viewpoint to those promoted by Fox was simply not invited back. A striking example of this can be seen in the treatment of Larry C. Johnson, a former Fox News contributor on military affairs. Despite having months remaining on his contract, he was never invited back after disagreeing with host Sean Hannity that the USA possessed the means to fight two wars effectively. This leads to an impression of a consensus on many issues, with the consequence of people accepting this truth as the result of a ‘fair and balanced’ conversation, which had in fact been heavily manipulated to prioritise certain narratives.
The reduction of reality to a matter of opinion is better illustrated in the ‘O’Reilly Factor’ programme on Fox News. Whilst often successful in conveying opinions directed by the ‘Daily Message’, or in establishing a narrative consensus akin to the panel of experts, occasionally a guest interviewee on the show will voice strong disagreement with O’Reilly. When this occurs, O’Reilly reacts in the same predictable manner. Instead of finding flaws in his now opponent’s arguments, or amending his own answers, he will first attempt to dominate conversation by frequently talking over the interviewee. When this is not successful, he will then muddy the conversation by either twisting the words of his counterpart, or invoking patriotic values to tarnish the interviewee in the eyes of his target audience. In either case, the reporting has moved away from a desire to uncover truth; it has now conflated truth with opinion, making it impossible for the guest to prove or argue anything substantive. His on-show treatment of Jeremy Glick, an activist who signed a statement that condemned the USA for creating the conditions that led to the September 11 attacks (most notably through funding the Mujahideen in the 1980s). O’Reilly, reacting to this criticism, weaponised the death of Jeremy’s father in 9/11, essentially saying that his father would be ashamed of him and that he was a disgrace to the nation. Once confronted with such loaded language, it becomes near-impossible to have a rational and reasonable debate.
As these sensationalist techniques increased Fox’s viewership, it is unsurprising that in a state with privately owned, competitive media institutions, other channels, such as MSNBC or CBS, followed suit. Whilst they are arguably less aggressive in terms of implementing an agenda, it nevertheless demonstrates that Fox’s actions have led to a move away from traditional journalistic ideals of truthful, objective, reporting. This new normal is a clear result of the ‘Fox Effect’.
All of these techniques bear a striking resemblance to methods used to control populations found in the discipline of ideology. In a nutshell, Ideology is the set of practices used to elicit consent of a subaltern group to be ruled by a dominant group (originally, these groups referred to the proletariat and bourgeoisie classes respectively). The role of information and the media in this capacity can be analysed in the context of Gramsci’s (1971) concepts of Hegemony and ‘Common Sense’. Hegemony is essentially achieved when one set of practices or thoughts becomes so dominant that it becomes impossible to achieve, or even conceive of, an alternative system. Fox News assists in creating a hegemony of conservative thought by ostensibly only allowing one narrative to exist, making it impossible to engage with alternative discourses which could disrupt the supremacy of Fox’s narrative in the eyes of its viewers. Ultimately, the views expressed by Fox become ‘Common Sense’; certain concepts and narratives advanced by Fox become so ubiquitous that they are naturalised as being the only possible viewpoint; any other narrative or interpretation is simply seen as ridiculous and inconceivable.
False consciousness is a subject which frequently appears in the sphere of ideology critique; the presentation, and reception, of one conception of reality being accepted as true when it is in fact false. Whilst not necessary for all ideological process to function, à la ‘Enlightened False Consciousness’ supposed by Peter Sloterdijk (Eagleton, 2007) in which the subject continues to perform certain actions even when aware that they are performed in the name of falsehoods, it can still be stated that wherever False Consciousness occurs as a system of oppression, Ideology is said to operate. The vast reshaping of reality through Fox’s reporting is testament to this. In a comparison between Fox News’s viewers and those of PBS-NPR, ‘Outfoxed’ demonstrates that Fox had continuously misled its viewers into believing a certain narrative.
When asked about the Iraq War, 33% of Fox News viewers believed that WMDs had been found, as opposed to 11% of viewers of other stations; 35% against 5% agreed that the rest of the world had a positive view of the USA’s intervention in Iraq; and 67% against 16% believed that there were links between the state of Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Fox viewers were systematically misinformed ultimately through exaggerating certain elements of the Iraq War, describing it as an ‘ongoing success’ with ‘tremendous progress’ in the form of new schools, falling unemployment, and even athletics development programs. To ‘lie in the guise of truth’, as Žižek (1994, p.8) puts it, fundamentally altered how people understood the Iraq War, and thus how they responded to it. The creation of misperceptions about to the Iraq War led to inescapable support for it, with very tangible political consequences in favour of those in power.
It is important to remember that the same techniques are still used by Fox News today (and to an extent other media outlets – for example, the interviewing style of Piers Morgan, here in Britain, bears obvious similarities with that of O’Reilly in terms of manipulating subject matter and muddying the conversation). Given how the ‘Fox Effect’ drastically transformed the way in which current affairs are reported, the use of these other mystifying techniques should be cause for equal concern, as we are now greater subjects to Ideological processes than ever before in the West. When reality becomes matter of opinion, it is the opinion which is able to manipulate the ‘truth’ the most that comes to dominate social relations.
So that we may escape such manipulation, it is necessary that we adopt a critical stance and are aware of how our thoughts may be shaped by external factors, and identify what specific techniques are used to shape our opinions and subsequent political practices.
Eagleton, T. (2007) Ideology: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. London: Verso.
Greenwald, R. (Director). (2004) Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism [Documentary]. United States of America: Brave New Films.
Lisle, D. (2013) ‘How do we find out what’s going on in the world?’, in Edkins, J. and Zehfuss, M. (ed.) Global Politics: A New Introduction. 2nd Ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated by Hoare, Q. and Smith, G.N. (eds.). London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Žižek, S. (1994) Mapping Ideology. London: Verso.