Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

July 7, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

Why is everyone writing off Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 as "propaganda for the faithful?" I took my Dad to see it, and he's definitely a sort of conservative independent voter (he voted for Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II) and he didn't write it off as "propaganda," although he was a bit put off by the obvious bias.

As far as I can tell, none of Moore's factual material was inaccurate, and he was honest about his opinions. What's the difference between an "opinion piece" and "propaganda?"

Akron, OH

Dear Larry,

Well, it would seem to be pretty subtle, wouldn't it? The difference, that is.

In an editorial or op-ed piece, the writer's (or producer's) intent is to examine some event or situation, from their own viewpoint, and clearly explain their viewpoint. It's in the interest of the creator/writer to describe the actual situation or event as objectively and factually as possible, to clearly differentiate "what is" from "'what I think about it." Their primary intention may or may not be to "convert"' the reader or viewer to share their opinion - although that usually is why an editorial or op-ed is created. Also, it is usually those on the "outside," who do not necessarily have the direct power to change or implement what they are commenting on, who create "opinion" pieces.

Propaganda, on the other hand, has the clear primary intent of "converting" others to share the views or support the positions of the propagandists. As such, it makes no attempt at objectivity, and propagandists have sometimes presented incomplete or distorted versions of the facts in order to make their point more powerfully. Propaganda is often (though not always) created by those who are on the "inside" of a power structure, party, or movement, to draw others "in."

If you accept these definitions, Larry, then Mr. Moore's film would appear to fit both criteria. He makes no secret of his biases, and presents a good deal of factual material clearly - even while commenting upon it with unconcealed bias. He also does some selective presentation of facts and juxtaposes them with his own conclusions or opinions in a way that is definitely not objective. And he makes no secret of the fact that his primary purpose is to convince others to share his views and/or "draw them in," even though he himself is an outsider without direct power in the government he criticizes.

What makes this film so explosively controversial and provokes such strong reaction is the subject matter Mr. Moore has chosen as his focus: terrible, tragic events that have had deep impact on all Americans, and how the actions (or inactions) and personal characteristics of our head of state interacted with those events. This is an area where feelings run deep, and there is already a substantial and well-established public disagreement. Had Mr. Moore applied the same type of techniques to something that was less emotionally explosive, or where Americans are more unified (as he did in his first film, "Roger and Me") there might be a very different critical response to his documentary technique.

Auntie Pinko has seen the film, and it was clear to me that one reason the negative response has been so strong is because the film itself has such a very powerful impact on the viewer. Even if one doesn't share all of Mr. Moore's views, or agree entirely with his interpretation of the facts, one cannot fail to be deeply affected by the masterful techniques he uses to expose them. It takes a strong effort of critical thinking to overcome that emotional impact, and separate the objective realities Mr. Moore is describing from the feelings and opinions he conveys so effectively.

Of course those who disagree with Mr. Moore feel deeply threatened by his film, and want to alert potential viewers to the mechanisms used to manipulate their feelings and opinions. They want to help people rise above the emotional content so powerfully presented, and enable that critical thinking. That is what Auntie Pinko would be doing, too, if someone who held the opinions that (for example) Mr. Cheney holds, had created such an artful and effective film to advance their own views.

The good news is, Larry, that there was plenty of unavoidably factual material that does not lend itself to "other interpretations" in the film. A careful effort at critical analysis, while it may lead the viewer to discard many of Mr. Moore's conclusions and interpretations, cannot help but make them think deeply about what he described. And anyone who carefully examines the facts available and thinks critically about them will make better decisions, come Election Day in November. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Larry!

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