Will the skirmish over the showing of "Fahrenheit 9/11" escalate into a full-fledged battle? Bill Berkowitz doesn't think it's likely, but -- stay tuned....
'FAHRENHEIT 9/11' ON THE HOT SEAT
By Bill Berkowitz
** Right-wing groups are launching a campaign to stop Michael Moore's film from being seen. Though information yearns to be free, will the right manage to yoke Moore's message? **
June 17, 2004
Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" won't rake in as much money as "Shrek 2," the Spiderman sequel, or the latest installment in the Harry Potter saga, but it could make its mark on the November presidential election. And that's what Team Bush and their right-wing surrogates are concerned about. Worried that Moore's new film, "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- fresh off its award-winning debut at Cannes and set to open in hundreds of theaters across the country on June 25 -- will be a political poison pill for the Bush campaign, conservatives have launched a preemptive strike aimed at discrediting Moore and bullying a number of big movie chains into not running the film.
Even before its release, Moore's film had stirred up a fair amount of controversy. The back-story, while nothing like the hullabaloo surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," has nevertheless engendered its own drama, including a major freak-out by the Disney Corporation which under the bold leadership of Michael Eisner, refused to distribute the film.
Now, with distributors Lions Gate Films, IFC and Bob and Harvey Weinstein's newly formed Fellowship Adventure Group in place and committed to spending up to $10 million on marketing, a California-based group called Move America Forward, which claims its goal is "supporting America's war on terrorism," has launched a campaign to prevent Moore's film from being shown.
At its website, Move America Forward is urging its supporters to "Stop Michael Moore" by taking "action against the release of his anti-American movie 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' " Claiming that the film is "an attack on the U.S. Military, the heroic men and women of the Armed Forces and our Commander-In-Chief," Move America Forward points out that Moore "and his anti-American film distributors are hoping to cash in to the tune of millions of dollars and also change U.S. politics."
Former GOP California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, and Melanie Morgan, a right wing talk show host on San Francisco's KSFO 560 AM are heading up the anti-Fahrenheit campaign. "Michael Moore has the right to free speech," MAF chairman Howard Kaloogian told Daily Variety. "But so do millions of Americans who find his anti-military propaganda and attacks on our troops offensive."
Another major participant in the campaign, according to the Political Strategy website, is Sal Russo, a longtime veteran of Republican Party politics. According to the Washington Post, Russo's Sacramento, CA-based political consulting firm, Russo Marsh & Rogers, helped create the Move America Forward website. Russo, who ran Bill Simon's unsuccessful campaign for Governor against Gray Davis, was an adviser to the Recall Gray Davis Committee.
Kaloogian, the Chairman of Move America Forward, claims that "we are winning the war on terrorism," and that the group's Web site is aimed at "report[ing] on the 'good news' you don't hear about."
(Snuffing the film from America's movie theatres is not the only controversy surrounding the film's release. Last week it was saddled with an "R" rating by the MPAA, meaning that children under 18 cannot see the film without being accompanied by an adult. According to a USA Today report, Moore has brought former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo on board "to help fight the movie's R-rating." At a press conference, Lions Gate Films chief Tom Ortenberg said that the distributors "want teens today, who will be required to fight in the next war, to be able to see" the movie. IFC president Jonathan Sehring pointed out that a PG-13 rating could add as much as 20% to the film's receipts.)
More often than not, censorious campaigns like the one carried out by Move America Forward are destined for the dust heap of history and often succeed in drawing more attention to a project than it otherwise might have garnered. "Any time any organization protests against a movie, they ensure that the movie will do better at the box office than it would have done otherwise. If they have any doubt about this, just ask Mel Gibson," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. (Since its opening in February, Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has grossed $370 million domestically.)
"The movie theater is a place of public discourse, and all views and philosophies are welcome," Fithian added. "It's the right place for the public to debate public issues."
However, in the era of the permanent "war against terrorism," where, as then-White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer once warned, "all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do," combined with the skill of right-wing organizations in managing the media by mobilizing the full range of their resources, the campaign launched by Move America Forward should not be taken lightly.
Last year's brouhaha over CBS' four-hour miniseries on Ronald Reagan -- revealing only a modicum of the late president's warts -- became a lightening rod for conservatives. By the time the dust cleared, a multi-pronged conservative mobilization had forced CBS to capitulate and move the miniseries from prime time to the pay cable channel Showtime, a sister network at Viacom.
Revelations by the New York Times that the film was less than flattering to the 40th president brought a blitzkrieg of right-wing organizing against CBS. Critics jumped on the so-called inaccuracy of the script (as revealed by the Times), and heaped scorn upon the lead actors -- James Brolin, the husband of one of the Right's favorite targets, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Davis -- criticizing them for being anti-Reagan.
The Drudge Report, the extraordinarily popular Web site also took on the issue; Reagan's son, right-wing radio talk show host Michael Reagan, got involved; the cable news networks, especially the Fox News Channel and MSNBC featured stories and interviews with mostly Reagan supporters; right-wing groups sent out e-mail alerts urging constituents to contact CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.
By late October, the Media Research Center , a longtime conservative media watchdog group run by L. Brent Bozell III, wrote a letter to a list of 100 top television sponsors urging them to "refuse to associate your products with this movie."
The Republican National Committee entered the fray, when GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie urged CBS to appoint a group of historians and associates of Reagan to review the film for accuracy. In the end, CBS caved and another battle -- albeit a small one -- in the "culture wars" had been won. "We used technology that was not available 10 years ago to do in nine days what used to take months," said Michael Paranzino, a former Republican congressional staff member active in the drive to boycott CBS, to the New York Times. "We created a genuine, national, grass-roots movement that forced a broadcasting titan to cancel one of its key sweeps weeks series."
The all-out assault against "Fahrenheit 9/11" is just getting started. However, given the mood of the country and Michael Moore's celebrity, it is doubtful the attack dogs will prevail. Nevertheless, Move America Forward is urging people to put pressure on theaters that have decided to run the film; their website lists email addresses for dozens of executives from groups such as Loews Cineplex Entertainment, Landmark Theaters, Cinema Arts Theaters, Drexel Theatres Group, as well as contacts for Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Theaters, Century Theatres, and others that have not yet decided whether they will run Moore's film.
For years right-wing organizations have kept their constituents mobilized by trumpeting the liberal threat to traditional family values and their lack of patriotism. These campaigns -- whether against same-sex marriage, a silly miniseries about the Reagans, or now, against Michael Moore's pointed critique of President Bush's war against terrorism and War on Iraq -- are aimed at keeping its constituents on a permanent war footing. Move America Forward will not succeed in taking down Fahrenheit 9/11. It will, however, keep Team Bush's right wing base vigilant, agitated and mobilized.
--Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.