BOB GARFIELD: Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 took in 30 million dollars in its first weekend, making it both a blockbuster and a bombshell. The hilarious and disturbing documentary attack on the Bush administration is the first theatrically released feature film explicitly conceived to influence a presidential election, and it may well succeed, portraying the president variously as clueless, impotent, heartless and corrupt. But, like previous Michael Moore films, Fahrenheit 9/11 is more polemic than journalism, picking and choosing facts and footage that served the filmmaker's point of view and discarding facts that are inconvenient. It has, thus, come under the attack of so-called truth squads who take issue with how Moore takes issue with the government. Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff is one of the skeptical, and he joins me now. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Moore and his distributors, the Weinstein brothers, have made a point to say that they hired fact-checkers to vet every frame of the film.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: How did they do?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, there are facts and there are facts. Most of the sort of specific points in the film will check out. What doesn't check out is the way they string them together to make larger points that viewers will see and think are true and then walk out not realizing there really isn't any evidence to support the sort of larger point they're trying to make. I actually think it's a quite powerful movie that I think has a lot to say, and you know, will and ought to provoke a lot of discussion. But I do think some of the conspiratorial claims in the movie are over the top and not supported by the available evidence. [CLIP FROM FAHRENHEIT 9/11]
MICHAEL MOORE: All commercial and airline traffic was grounded...
MAN: But we had some airplanes authorized at the highest levels of our government to pick up Osama bin Laden's family members and transport them out of this country.
BOB GARFIELD: Moore's interpretation is that 24 Saudis, including members of the Bin Laden family, were spirited out of the country immediately after 9/11, presumably -- at least we're led to believe - to shield them from investigation.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: That is pretty much contradicted by what's in the findings of the 9/11 Commission, and they said, contrary to what some of the allegations were, that many of the Saudis were asked detailed questions, that the FBI screened them in other ways, including checking their names against terrorist databases, and concluded at the end of the day that none of them had any involvement in 9/11 or were needed for any further questions relating to the 9/11 investigation. But the probably most dishonest part of what Moore does in that passage is -- he hangs a lot on the claim that the White House approved these flights, suggesting that the White House did so because of its coziness with the Saudis, deriving from this supposed financial nexus between the Bush family and the House of Saud. Well the problem is, we know exactly who in the White House approved the flights, and it wasn't the president; it wasn't the vice president. It was-- Richard Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who was then serving as counterterrorism czar and who has since become a fierce Bush critic.
BOB GARFIELD: Another provocative element in the film is the administration's pre-9/11 relationship with the Taliban.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah. I think this is actually one of the more dishonest, if not the most dishonest single thing in the movie. Moore leaves the implication that the Bush administration was soft on the Taliban in the months before 9/11 because it was interested in a pipeline deal that was being pushed by a big American oil company, Unocal. Well, it is true that Unocal was interested at one point in building a pipeline - natural gas pipeline - through Afghanistan, and it is true that Unocal was pushing for that pipeline and even lobbying in Washington. They did so during the Clinton administration, and what the movie doesn't tell you is that in 1998, Unocal dropped out of the deal. So by the time George W. Bush takes office, there is no Unocal pipeline project on the table at all. There's no pipeline deal being discussed.
BOB GARFIELD: Moore doesn't claim to be a journalist. He says that he has a point of view to flog, and he, he's going to flog it.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Look, it's a free country. You can put out there anything you want, and-- you know, God knows the political right threw out a lot of bogus charges about Bill Clinton in all sorts of different forums, and I think there's a certain feeling of political payback here on the part of somebody like Michael Moore on the left. But that doesn't absolve the rest of us from, you know, doing our jobs and, and pointing out - hey - this is true - this isn't - this goes too far. This movie is a huge cultural and political event. It's bringing access to issues in a different forum that's reaching out to a lot of people who wouldn't normally be engaged by reading stories about these matters in the New York Times or Newsweek or-- some other publication.
BOB GARFIELD: I think there's probably a, a pretty big overlap between liberal values and journalistic values, sense of suspicion of authority, skepticism, looking out for the little guy, and so forth. If you accept that proposition, do you think that there, inherent in a lot of the criticism of Moore's techniques, there's a sense of betrayal that someone with whom journalists are politically sympathetic, at least with respect to the Bush administration, is playing so fast and loose with the truth --essentially embracing the very tactics that the Bush administration is alleged to have employed to mislead us all?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, I quote in one of the stories from a former Clinton associate saying "I'd like to think my guys play by the rules and have higher standards. That's why they're my guys," and a feeling that when you see some of the innuendo and stretching the truth that goes on in the Moore movie, it's disheartening to people who really want this to be fought on a high, fair and accurate plane.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much for joining us.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: All right. Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Isikoff is an investigative correspondent for Newsweek.