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American Journalism Review
A Funny, Subversive "60 Minutes"  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1995

A Funny, Subversive "60 Minutes"   

By Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.     


Last May, at a City Hall news conference, Michael Moore asked New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his reaction to an announcement by First Boston. Just two weeks after it had been given a $50 million tax break by the city, Moore pointed out, the bank was laying off 200 New York employees.

Giuliani blinked. "That's a very, very simplistic, almost silly way to look at it," he replied.

No surprise there. That's how Moore, the creator, executive producer and host of the offbeat television magazine show "TV Nation," looks at just about everything.

"TV Nation" appeared nine times on NBC last year, and has a devoted following here and in Great Britain, where the program aired on the BBC. It's scheduled to return this summer on Fox, which lured Moore away from NBC with promises of a weekly time slot and more creative freedom.

Best known for his sardonic 1989 documentary, "Roger & Me," in which he examined the effect of General Motors layoffs on Flint, Michigan, Moore is a chubby, unkempt former newspaper editor with an eye for the ridiculous. He has described his show as "'60 Minutes' if it had a sense of humor and a subversive edge."

An Arizona Republic review agreed with Moore's description, but threw in comparisons to "The Gong Show" and "Candid Camera" for good measure. And respected television critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post hates the program.

After Shales' viewing of Moore's first episode last year, he wrote that Moore's habit of "dragging people in front of a camera lens and humiliating them" was "neither a very noble calling nor a sufficient basis for a network TV show."

Every "TV Nation" story has an agenda, whether it be to expose the excesses of corporate America, highlight the inequities between rich and poor, or examine the absurdity of modern politics. In one of his favorite stories, Moore drove a Yugo back and forth between the Serbian and Croatian embassies in Washington, D.C., to convince diplomats at each to meet over pizza. After the men fought over the size of their slices, Moore reconciled them by singing "The Barney Song" ("I love you, you love me, we're a happy family"). The segment later aired with gruesome statistics about the toll of the war superimposed on the screen.

Moore was criticized for making light of a serious situation. But Greg Gattuso, 26, a freelance writer who founded a fan club for the show, didn't see it that way. "Although he reduced the war to the absurd," he says, "he did a better job of explaining the situation than many legitimate news broadcasts."

Moore runs wild in other segments as well. Among the stories that appeared during the NBC run:

Moore chose a lobbyist randomly from the Washington, D.C., Yellow Pages and gave him $5,000 to try and get a congressional resolution passed establishing "TV Nation Day." He succeeded in getting the measure introduced on the House floor, where one member argued that the program "deserves a special day because it creates jobs and improves the balance of trade."

A "TV Nation" reporter tracked what happens to New York City sewage from the flush to the sludge cake that ends up being shipped to the poorest town in the poorest county in Texas.

The show featured a "Health Care Olympics," in which reporters were stationed in Cuban, Canadian and U.S. emergency rooms to see who got the best care for a leg injury. Cuba won with no waiting time and no charge; the American patient waited for hours and was charged $450.77 (including $44 for an Ace bandage).

Moore hired an actor to move into a suburban community on Long Island, then over the course of five days had the man bury 55-gallon drums in his front yard, splatter his windows with red paint, throw a "bloody mattress" in the garbage, play nursery rhyme records, change his address to 666 and paint half of his garage door red. No one called the police.

Some media watchdogs say "TV Nation" oversimplifies complex issues and seems more intent on getting laughs than on finding truth. James Ledbetter, media critic at the Village Voice, says that the program's "chief shortcoming is that Moore has not evolved beyond the persona that he created for 'Roger & Me.' After a while, harping on people with the mentality of a local consumer reporter ceases to have the same impact."

Moore's approach wavers between kidding and contempt, and he makes no apologies for his left-leaning bias. In fact, it drives the show. Some "TV Nation" fans say that's why they find it refreshing.

"[Networks] usually follow a very well-established set of codes to maintain a false sense of objectivity," writes Bob Boster, a fan in North Carolina who praised Moore in a local magazine. "'TV Nation' works by acknowledging that any statement made in a public forum implicitly carries a political position."

"Something about Moore's delivery says it's OK to manhandle his victims," Gattuso wrote in his fan club's newsletter. "After all, they're frequently corporate big-shots, stuffed government suits or other figures whose mission seems to focus on holding down the rest of us. Seventy years ago, Charlie Chaplin would have kicked their asses too."

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