July 24, 2007
CNN, Michael Moore, Sicko, and fact-checking as propaganda tool
(For previous posts on the topic of health care, see here.)
All Michael Moore's films deal with very serious topics in ways that are both informative and entertaining. His films have dealt with corporate greed, violence in society, the Iraq war, and now the health industry. Along with Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, he provides a perspective and viewpoint that is almost completely absent from the mainstream media.
What is curious is the response to his films. People seem to find it hard to accept that his critiques are largely accurate and desperately seek to find something, however trivial or immaterial to his main point, that is wrong so that they can discredit his entire case. They seem to be eager to characterize Moore as not being a "serious" person.
The so-called "fact-checking" by CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, for example, has to be seen to be believed. He accused Moore of "fudging facts" but got his own facts wrong, and the only "expert" his report showed was an academic who did business with the medical industry, although this fact was not pointed out. Gupta accused Moore of cherry-picking data, when the same charge could be leveled at CNN, and the differences in any case were small and immaterial to the case Moore was making.
I am all for fact-checking statements made by public figures, and Moore should not be exempted. But the point is that while CNN enthusiastically "fact-checks" anti-establishment figures like Moore, they almost never do similar things for the statements by government and industry personnel. This is characteristic of the media propaganda model that was pointed out by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the classic work Manufacturing Consent. Moore rightly chastised Blitzer for the fact that the mainstream media uncritically passed on all the outrageous statements by Iraq war advocates leading up to the 2003 invasion. They are doing a similar thing now with respect to Iran. Where is their vaunted "fact-checking" on those important issues? To find any serious fact-checking of statements by Bush or Cheney or any administration spokespersons, one needs to read blogs.
There is no question that big media outlets are completely beholden to the medical and drug industries because of the extensive advertising revenue they receive from them, and thus avoid taking a hard line against them. If Gupta or Blitzer did a really serious comparison of the US and (say) French health care systems and concluded that the French were better, the CNN top brass would get stern calls from the health-related industry and they would feel the heat. The point is not that Blitzer and Gupta are deliberately hiding the truth (though that might be the case), it is that the way the media filters operate is that only people who think like them, who are already sympathetic to the US health care industry and will bend over backwards to show them in a good light, will get to the position they currently occupy. So the fact that they effectively act as shills for the health industry should not come as a surprise. (See my previous post and here for more on how the media works.)
It seems that if you are well-dressed, articulate person from a so-called "respectable" institution like a think-tank or government or academia or the media (I am thinking of people like William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Mitt Romney, Alan Dershowitz, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Lieberman, and the innumerable loyal Bushies and Cheneyites), you can say the most outrageous, even borderline insane, things (such as advocate torture and indefinite detention without trial or access to lawyers, undermine the Bill or Rights, attack Iran, link Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11, and not even rule out the use of nuclear weapons) without being challenged and fact-checked, as long as you are promoting the pro-establishment or pro-war or pro-business point of view. Running fact-checks on what these people say, especially George Bush during his public speeches and press conferences, would be very helpful but is rarely done.
But when it comes to Michael Moore, the mainstream media are eager to trot out their "fact-checking" teams to scrutinize him, because he is challenging the joint war/business establishment of which they are an integral part. The news media tends to assume that when Moore (a big fat guy in an open-neck shirt and unkempt hair stuffed under a baseball cap and looking like a trucker) comes ambling along, he must be simply shooting from the hip, as sloppy with the facts as he is with his appearance.
The reality is that Moore is a sharp guy who has a research team in place to back up the statements in his films. He is not a just-off-the-boat bumpkin that his cinematic persona projects and he knows that all the big establishment guns are just waiting for him to make a mistake so that they can pounce and use that single slip to discredit his whole thesis, a common tactic used by big corporations. It is not an accident that he can provide immediate refutations of Gupta's allegations. His research team has probably anticipated every possible challenge to his film and prepared a counter-offensive before even releasing the film. (CNN has now responded to Moore's charges against them.) See also Moore's website on the detailed documentation behind his film.
This is why CNN was reduced to desperately looking for something, anything, to support their contention that he "fudged the facts," and resorted to distortions when they couldn't find anything substantive. But people who condescend to Moore and take him lightly because he does not talk or look or act like a sophisticated intellectual are falling into a trap because they tend to underestimate him, and then are taken by surprise when he slaps them down with facts and reason, as Blitzer and Gupta experienced. When directly challenged, Gupta could not provide even a single example of how Moore "fudged the facts," and was reduced to whining about Moore using different sources for his data (even though all the sources used were authoritative) and how Moore described the health care systems of other nations as "free" when they were funded by taxes. This alone shows how far Gupta is stretching to try to discredit Moore. Does Gupta think we are so stupid that we believe that all the services we all commonly describe as "free" (libraries, parks, public schools etc.) magically appear as gifts from Santa Claus and are not funded by our taxes? The point is that "free" in those contexts is commonly understood as meaning that we can access those services at any time without having to produce cash or prove that we can pay.
And most importantly, in the other countries which have universal, single-payer health care systems, not a single person goes bankrupt or loses their home or has to forego other of life's essentials because of their health care needs. That is what "free" means, as Gupta must know but chooses to obfuscate.
In his report, Gupta also seemed to act like he had made a big journalistic scoop by 'discovering' that Cuba was at rank #39 (behind the US at rank #37) in the overall health care quality ranking. In fact, Moore's film clearly showed the two rankings. It was Gupta's CNN report that implied that Moore's film hid this fact by themselves hiding Cuba's on-screen ranking in the film behind a caption, as can be seen below where the left is from the film and the right is what was shown by CNN. This was a truly outrageous thing for a so-called journalist to do. So it was Gupta and CNN who were "fudging the facts."
(Pam Martens points out that Gupta co-hosts a TV show called AccentHealth that is sponsored by drug companies likeMerck, whose products Gupta has been praising. And here is some background on Sanjay Gupta that suggests that he is a Deepak Chopra wannabe, using the same kind of medical-related, feel-good, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that seems to appeal to a lot of people.)
What I find odd is that even some people who share Moore's politics tend to try and distance themselves from him and treat him as a gadfly. One of the best analyses of the responses to Moore and his film was done by James Clay Fuller and it is well worth reading in its entirety. As Fuller says: "Apparently there is a rule in corporate journalism that every mention of Moore and his films, or Moore without his films, must contain at least two snide observations about his biases, his ever so naughty attacks on rich and powerful but somehow –- in the eyes of the corporate journalists -- defenseless people such as the chairman of General Motors, and, if you can slide it in, Moore's physical appearance." Another good analysis of the facts in Moore's film can be heard in this Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Oberlander.
You should really see Sicko if you have not already done so.
POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore with Stephen Colbert
It was a great interview. See the clip.