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Bill Berkowitz: Michael Moore gets ready to roll

Michael Moore gets ready to roll

As Moore prepares a new film on America's ailing health care industry, will it continue being open season on the 'scruffy guy in a baseball cap'?
Bill Berkowitz

"Michael Moore is considering making a movie about the Government lapses that surrounded Hurricane Katrina. Moore is reported to have said the issue 'has all the elements that made Fahrenheit 9/11 such a powerful film ... the political outrage, the human suffering and the incredible footage.'"

-- The New Zealand Herald, September 15, 2005

In early January, at the Thirty-First Annual People's Choice Awards, Michael Moore's remarkable documentary film, Fahrenheit 9/11, received the "Favorite Movie" award. Moore thanked the people for their votes, and said that he was "amazed" to be receiving the award.

He then dedicated it to US troops fighting overseas.

Moore closed by saying that he loved "making movies" and that he would take "this [award] as an invitation to make more Fahrenheit 9/11s."

Then, Moore seemed to disappear from the public eye.

However, unlike Richard Nixon who, after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown, delivered his "You-won't-have-Richard-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore" retirement (albeit premature) speech, Moore made no such pledge.

Nine months later, Moore is about to set his cameras rolling.

Any information about a new Michael Moore film inevitably gets the juices flowing and tongues wagging. This time around, months before he was to begin shooting his new film --about Americas' ailing health care industry and provisionally entitled "Sicko" -- a gaggle of pharmaceutical companies launched a pre-emptive strike against him and the film.

At least six of America's largest pharmaceutical firms sent memos to their workers warning them to be on the lookout for "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap" who asks too many questions, the Guardian reported.

"We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you'll know who it is" Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development, told the Los Angeles Times.

"Moore's past work has been marked by negativity, so we can only assume it won't be a fair and balanced portrayal," said Rachel Bloom, executive director of corporate communications the Delaware-based firm, AstraZeneca. "His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries."

Moore's pending film wasn't his only endeavor to attract attention. When it was announced that Moore was one of the key organizers of the first Traverse City Film Festival -- held in the economically-distressed city of the same name near his home in Michigan -- some conservatives considered organizing a boycott of the five-day event held in late July.

However, in addition to being an unprecedented cultural opportunity for the area, many locals saw the festival as a much-needed economic shot in the arm: Michigan's former Republican Governor William Milliken, the Herrington-Fitch Foundation, and a local radio station that airs conservative talk shows like Rush Limbaugh all helped support the film festival.

It "was a success beyond anything we had imagined," Moore said in a post-festival press release. "For a city that has a population of only 20,000, to have 50,000 admissions at a film festival here, words can't describe how we feel."

Festival organizers also pointed out that fans consistently packed the house for the free daily panel discussions with directors, writers and Hollywood insiders, and more than 6,000 turned out for the festival's free outdoor showings of "Casablanca" and "Jaws." Five-hundred volunteers helped the festival run smoothly.

In an unprecedented move, festival organizers also announced that they would be purchasing copies of all 2005 films for three county library systems, and providing free public access to the movies for all.

Instead of a boycott, conservatives opted for their own mini-film festival, a move that likely delighted Moore, who is devoted to film. Several years back, when he was confronted by conservative filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney -- who hoped to "provok[e] a flustered reaction" which he could post on his weblog,, Moore instead graciously suggested that documentary filmmaking "should be open to all people of all political persuasions." Moore pointed out that filmmaking "should not just be people who are liberal, or left-of-center, or whatever." He encouraged Maloney to make his movie, "and then the people will respond or not respond to them."

Recently, right wing pundits have claimed that Moore was behind Cindy Sheehan's August tent encampment, set up just down the road from President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch. Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in April 2004.

And, according to Media Matters, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his audience that he would like to see a law that would deport "anybody who speaks out against this country." Under such a law, Limbaugh posited, "We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic Party," and "That would be fabulous."

Moore-loathing reached a grand scale in 2004: Conservatives accused him of everything from being a Bush-bashing anti-American who played fast and loose with the facts in his award-winning documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, to being a lousy tipper, while so-called moderate Democrats pegged him as part of a "Hollywood elite" that helped cost John Kerry the presidency.

Before Fahrenheit 9/11 hit the theaters in June 2004, Russo Marsh & Rogers, a Sacramento, California-based public relation firm, teamed up with Move America Forward -- the conservative group that recently sponsored the so-called Truth Tour to Iraq -- to launch a pre-emptive strike against the film. The campaign, which ultimately had little impact, urged supporters to "Stop Michael Moore" by taking "action against the release of his anti-American movie."

Two conservative film festivals were initiated during the year. The American Film Renaissance, whose slogan was "Doing Film the Right Way," became the first full-fledged film festival devoted entirely to the screening of films with a conservative perspective, and several of them, including Michael Moore Hates America, were aimed directly at countering Moore's award-winning film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

A host of critical web sites aimed at debunking Moore's politics were established, including Moorewatch, "Watching Michael Moore's Every Move,", and "Bowling For Truth -- The Distortions in BFC" which attempts to take down Moore's Oscar-winning film, Bowling for Columbine have been established. For those less verbally inclined, there is the Punch Michael Moore in the Face web site.

The right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) weighed in with a fair amount of its own criticism of Moore. After last year's election, Al From, the DLC's CEO, pointed out that Democrats must "repudiate, you know, the most strident and insulting anti-American voices out there sometimes on our party's left ... We can't have our party identified by Michael Moore and Hollywood as our cultural values."

Will Marshall, the President of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the DLC, added: "You know, let's let Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival fawn all over Michael Moore. We ought to make it pretty clear that he sure doesn't speak for us when it comes to standing up for our country."

Even the usually mild-mannered Leon Panetta, the former Democratic Congressman who served as President Clinton's White House chief of staff, had strong words about Moore, saying that the Party must do away with cultural elitism -- which he called the "Michael Moore syndrome."

Evan Coyne Maloney, the conservative New York City-based documentary filmmaker who dogged Moore a few years back, told me that he "credit[s] Michael Moore with helping bring political debate to the realm of documentary film, and I hope the medium can support a true debate, one where multiple perspectives are heard."

Maloney, who earlier this year was hailed by the conservative newspaper the New York Sun, as perhaps "America's most promising conservative documentary filmmaker," expects "many people who share Michael Moore's political persuasion" will "be interested in seeing his take on our healthcare system."

Now putting the finishing touches on Indoctrinate U, a feature film that expands upon his Brainwashing 101, an expose of unbridled liberalism on America's colleges and universities, Maloney added that it would "be interesting to see how the general public would respond to seeing his film and, say, a film that discusses the people who've died in Canada on waiting lists for procedures that are routine here."

Meanwhile, at a press conference during the film festival Moore was asked about the health care industry's concern about his upcoming film. Bemused as he often is by his attackers, Moore pointed out that, strangely enough, the HMOs already seemed to be "totally discombobulated" even though he hadn't yet shot a single frame.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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