By MARC McDONALD
Chris Matthews has compared Michael Moore to Osama bin Laden, creating a firestorm of controversy among liberal bloggers. To which I say: so what's new? Moore has been the target of vicious slander for years now.
Bear in mind, I'm not just referring to the nut-case, right-wing media. I'm referring to the mainstream media, as well. In fact, even some progressives these days have been careful to distance themselves from Moore.
I think Moore has gotten a bad rap. In reality, his films and books are far more accurate (and balanced) than he gets credit for. In fact, the accusations I've seen against Moore are themselves highly distorted and inaccurate.
The current wave of Moore-bashing seems to date back to his "infamous" March 2003 Oscar-night speech. The press reports I read about the event focused solely on the fact that his comments drew boos from some audience members.
Few people, though, seem to remember exactly what Moore said that night, three days after the U.S. launched its war on Iraq.
"We live in a time where we have a man who's sending us to war for fictitious reasons," Moore said, thus throwing a wrench into the carefully choreographed TV event beamed around the world.
In hindsight, of course, this comment has turned out to be amazingly prescient. The Bush team's stated rationale for the war has been shown to be, indeed, fiction.
As it turns out, Moore's comments about the impending war were more accurate and truthful than anything the mainstream media was churning out at the time.
Recall how, in the buildup to the war, the media did little more than stand on the sidelines, acting as a cheerleader.
On May 26, 2004, in a stunning and unprecedented half-page correction, The New York Times basically admitted that ALL of its pre-war coverage was seriously flawed.
And yet, somehow, at the end of the day, Moore's Oscar night speech seems to be regarded by many as some sort of black mark on his record. I find it bizarre that he's the target of criticism, as opposed to the mainstream media, which completely failed in its role to tell the America people the truth.
I think this episode pretty much sums up Moore's career. He raises vital issues that no one in the mainstream media has the courage to address. And, instead of taking a look at the urgent issues Moore raises, media pundits invariably attack Moore himself.
Have you ever seen Moore interviewed by a mainstream media pundit? It's an interesting experience. It's the only time I've ever seen one of these milksops actually grow a backbone and challenge someone with hard-ball questions and relentless grilling.
It's all very admirable. But I tend to wonder why Moore is the only person who gets this sort of treatment.
Take for example, the media's kid-glove handling of George W. Bush. You almost never see Bush get a hard-ball question in a U.S. press conference. Bush can lie through his teeth all day and never face a challenge from the press. Remember, this is a man who to this day has never been called to task by the mainstream media for the lies he told way back in the 2000 election campaign.
"By far the vast majority of my tax cuts go to those at the bottom end of the spectrum," Bush said at the time. I'm still waiting for the media to challenge that 6-year-old whopper.
And while Bush gets kid-glove treatment, Moore gets an unfair bad rap these days, from everyone from Fox News to the supposedly "liberal" mainstream press.
Here's an example. One major issue that Moore got grief on for his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, was that he supposedly depicted Saddam's Iraq as a peaceful, happy place. Countless commentators remarked on this. The idea was even spoofed in the 2004 Team America movie.
There's only one problem. Moore never said any such thing, or anything remotely like it.
Apparently, Moore's critics are referring to a brief segment in which he shows a few random street scenes from Baghdad, without commentary, just before the U.S. bombs fell.
It's clear that what Moore was aiming to achieve with this scene was to try to put a human face on Iraq. He wanted to let Americans see the faces of the ordinary human beings who we'd soon be dropping bombs on.
Was this unreasonable? I don't think so. In fact, I think it was a perfect antidote to the relentless lies that were being spewed out by America's mainstream press.
Day after day in the buildup to the war, Americans were pumped up full of fear and hatred of Iraq by an irresponsible media that was simply parroting Bush's lies. The distortion of reality was so great that, to this day, large numbers of Americans still believe that Saddam had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.
Moore also got a lot of grief over accusations that he never pointed out what an evil person Saddam was in F911.
When I read this criticism by media pundits, I had to wonder what film they watched. In reality, a very large chunk of F911 features relentless denunciations of Saddam by the Bush team. We see endless video footage of everyone from Bush to Cheney to Powell to Rice to Rumsfield ranting and raving about how evil Saddam is and why America has no choice but to attack Iraq immediately.
Indeed, it's these over-the-top, wildly inaccurate statements from the Bush team that served to enhance Moore's thesis: that Bush's case for war in Iraq was a pack of lies.
An entire industry has arisen these days, devoted to bashing Michael Moore. Web sites proliferate across the Net solely dedicated to sliming the film maker. Numerous books and films have been released, aimed at tarnishing Moore's reputation.
This brings us to an interesting question. Why is Moore subject to so many attacks? Is it really because he doesn't tell the truth?
Or, perhaps, is it because he shines light on difficult, troubling issues that America's rich and powerful would rather keep the public in the dark about?
I firmly believe it's the latter. And there's powerful evidence that this is indeed the case.
Take, for example, Moore's endless problems with securing funding and distribution for his projects.
This flies in the face of all conventional business wisdom. After all, virtually everything Moore has touched has turned into commercial gold, starting with his 1989 film, Roger & Me. The latter, shot on a shoestring $160,000 budget, went on to earn millions worldwide.
Which brings us to Moore's 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Profit-obsessed Hollywood should have been chomping at the bit to release this film.
After all, Moore had proven himself a solid commercial property. Moore's books, Dude, Where's My Country? (2003) and Stupid White Men (2002) were enormous bestsellers. And his 2002 film, Bowling for Columbine, produced for a mere $4 million, went on to earn more than 12 times that amount worldwide. Clearly, Moore had a huge, loyal audience that numbered in the tens of millions.
By any sane business logic, Disney should have been very eager to release F911. They refused, leaving Moore in a awkward 11th-hour scramble to secure a distributor. In the end, Moore had to go to Canada to find a distributor who'd handle his film in the U.S.
Was Disney's decision strictly a "business" decision, as the right-wing (and indeed, the mainstream media) claimed? Or was it outright censorship, done solely for political reasons?
It's clear the latter was the case. If Disney really believed F911 wasn't going to be a box office winner, given Moore's stellar commercial track record, then it's no wonder that Disney needs hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare to make ends meet these days.
Some people might scoff at the idea that censorship can occur in the private sector, pointing out that only the government is capable of censoring anything. That might have been true 50 years ago in America, when there were still thousands of independent newspapers and other media outlets.
However, today, with a handful of giant conglomerates controlling the media, private-sector censorship is much more plausible. (And of course, we'd be naive to assume that the White House did NOT have a hand in pressuring Disney to block the release of F911.)
In any case, Disney's stupidity in refusing to distribute F911 was its loss. The film went on to enjoy spectacular commercial success. Shot on a mere $6 million budget, F911 has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in box office around the world.
In the end, there's a silver lining to this story. The fact is, the more America's right wing continues to bash and slime Moore, the larger his audience grows.
As a progressive who's watched this country veer sharply to the right over the past quarter century, I find that Moore serves as an inspiration during these bleak times. I'd suspect that millions of working people across the land would agree.
To me, Moore offers the hope that, despite the stranglehold that giant media conglomerates have over the nation's public debate, it's still possible today for the American people to be exposed to topics that the rich and powerful would rather us not hear about.
America's ruling elite has long been adept at using mock outrage over various aspects of our pop culture. They love to stir up "controversies" over everything from rapper Eminem to the Janet Jackson/Super Bowl incident to shock jock Howard Stern.
All this serves a useful purpose. For one thing, this fake outrage tends to convey the impression that our nation's democracy and free speech are more much vibrant than they really are. I'd bet money, though, that what really sends shivers down the spine of America's ruling class is a commentator like Moore.
How does Moore draw such a large audience for his work? Well, for one thing, his films and books are actually entertaining---a rarity during an era when Hollywood is increasingly creatively bankrupt. Moore's films are also funny (and humor is, of course, the toughest and riskiest genre to pull off successfully).
Moore is also a master of presenting delightful slices of Americana. The people who populate his films are, in many cases, ordinary working-class men and women. His audiences likely respond well to his work, because, when they look up at the silver screen, they see a reflection of themselves--a refreshing change of pace in today's plastic, celebrity-worshiping pop culture.
Moore, of course, isn't the only commentator who's taken on decidedly drab, unsexy topics like union struggles, layoffs, corporate crime, the health care crisis, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and other issues that've been ignored by the mainstream media.
But Moore IS the only U.S. commentator today who has the gift of taking these urgent issues and presenting them in a manner that consistently draws an enormous audience.
For that alone, we progressives ought to be thankful.