Truth teller or story stretcher?


After spending two hours at lunch with Michael Moore the other day, the biggest shock for me was learning that when it comes to “Republican hacks” -- his phrase, not mine -- the man he seems to loathe the most isn’t George Bush but Jay Leno. “He’s banned me from his show for 10 years,” contends Moore, who does a wickedly funny Leno impression. “Then, after my Oscar speech, I thought he went out of his way to incite violence against me by showing ‘Michael Moore’s house’ being blown up. It was a frightening time for me -- my house in Michigan was vandalized. And he’d have James Woods and other guests on and incite them to criticize me.”

Tugging on his signature baseball cap, this one with a “Made in Canada” logo, Moore says Leno changed his tune, inviting him to appear after the filmmaker’s incendiary “Fahrenheit 9/11” documentary won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. “Of course I said no.” According to Moore, Leno isn’t the only lofty TV icon to freeze him out. He says the last time he was on “The O’Reilly Factor” he cut Bill O’Reilly to ribbons and “Bill doesn’t like that, so I got banned from the show.” Of course, says Moore, “now that it will help his ratings, he wants me on.”

The story isn’t quite so simple, as I learned when I got O’Reilly on the phone. “Moore was never banned, and he’s welcome to come on anytime,” he said. “I guess that’s part of his charm. He’s going to say bad things about me to get publicity. I have to admit -- left-wing bomb throwers sure know how to do good marketing.”


O’Reilly went to a screening of the film, though because of its late start, he had to leave early to honor a prior commitment. (His mini-review: “It’s what I expected -- Bush and his crew are a satanic cult, and we live in a police state.”) On his way out, he bumped into Moore and asked if he would be coming on the show. He says Moore responded, “Yes, I am.” So far Moore’s handlers are hedging, saying they haven’t committed.

The Leno camp also offered an account at odds with Moore’s. They said that far from being banned, Moore was invited to appear after Cannes and was asked to be on the show twice in recent years, most recently after “Bowling for Columbine” won the Oscar for best documentary and Moore gave an inflammatory acceptance speech. After hearing of Moore’s charge about showing his house being blown up, Leno went back and watched the tape, which he said shows not a house but a shack in the desert being hit by a missile. Through his publicist, Leno said, “If the jokes bothered him, I wish Michael would have called. Or he could have come on the show. I was just telling jokes about what made headlines, and that included him.”

Leno’s producer, Debbie Vickers, added: “Michael may feel he has a feud with us, but I know of no feud we have with him.”

For the record, I have no feud with Moore nor any beef with his politics. When it comes to having the opinion that the Bush camp misled the country about its invasion of Iraq and the way the war on terror has been used for naked political purposes, we’re in complete sync. What worries me is that if the charges Moore makes about his showbiz adversaries are unverifiable, what are we supposed to think about the important contentions, such as the Bush administration’s cozy ties with the Saudi government?

I’m not the only one to wonder if Moore is a truth teller or a serial exaggerator. The Internet is jammed with sites devoted to debunking his films and books. Michael Wilson has just finished a documentary, “Michael Moore Hates America,” that interviews various detractors, one of whom tartly notes, “He’s positively brilliant at creating the false impression without uttering a false word.” ReganBooks has just released “Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man,” which rakes the filmmaker over the coals a thousand ways. The book argues that Moore fits the definition of a narcissistic personality disorder, which authors David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke describe as a pathological combination of overwhelming egotism and self-loathing.

After that, being lampooned by Jay Leno doesn’t seem so bad after all, does it?

Some attackers are simply trying to smear Moore. Among them is Move America Forward, which has organized a campaign to stop theater owners from booking the film -- which opens in New York on Wednesday and in Los Angeles and the rest of the country Friday -- making the preposterous charge that it’s an Al Qaeda recruiting tool. But other critics can’t be tarred as knee-jerk ideologues. “You don’t have to be a right-winger to be offended by misinformation,” says Paul Slansky, a New Yorker humor writer and author of “The George W. Bush Quiz Book,” a collection of damning facts and observations about Bush. “He plays fast and loose with the facts, the perfect example being in ‘Columbine’ where he implies you can go into a bank and come out with a gun, as if it all happened then and there. The facts are always bent to support his agenda. Once you’re caught in a lie, it calls all the other stuff into question.”


Moore says he invited fact checkers from the New Yorker to “tear this film apart and find something wrong.” Sound familiar? When it comes to bending facts to fit an agenda, Slansky could just as well be talking about the president. In fact, Moore and Bush friends and foes see them in a strangely similar light; their admirers hailing their straight-shooting integrity, their enemies decrying their deception and opportunism.

Moore also hired an independent fact-checking firm that he says was “totally impressed -- they said, ‘Hey, the Saudis even gave more money to the Bush circle than you say they do.’ ” But can “Fahrenheit 9/11” stand up to rigorous scrutiny? Being skeptical, I gave Moore the opportunity to respond to some questions about issues he raises in the film, starting with a segment of the movie in which Moore makes a series of connections between the Bush family circle and the Saudi elite.

Question: You make a big deal out of the fact that Saudi nationals and the Bin Laden family were given special privileges to fly and leave the country in the days after 9/11. Many people, including the 9/11 Commission, have disputed that, as well as whether the Bin Laden relatives had any connection to Osama. What’s your case?

Moore: “The issue is over the interpretation of the facts. Other people started to fly on Sept. 13, but not on private jets. Everywhere you look there was favoritism to the Saudis. As for the Bin Ladens, can you imagine the FBI saying to Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife or mother, ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’

You don’t know that there’s no evidence of links between Osama and his brothers. It’s basic police work. You say, ‘Will you stay in touch with us when you go back to Saudi Arabia?’ They just asked for their passports, did a quick check and that was it? After 3,000 people died, couldn’t they do a little arm twisting? At least a little pinkie twisting?”

Q: You mock the “coalition of the willing” by only showing the tiny countries that have voiced support. But you leave out England, Spain, Italy and Poland. Why?


Moore: “This film exists as a counterbalance to what you see on cable news about the coalition. I’m trying to counter the Orwellian nature of the Big Lie, as if when you hear that term, the ‘coalition,’ that the whole world is behind us.”

Q: You make it seem as if the Democratic opposition were totally silent about the war. Why don’t you have one clip of Howard Dean, whose antiwar campaign was on the front pages for months?

Moore: “I’m showing the Democratic leadership in Congress being submissive. I don’t just imply -- I say the Democratic leadership was a bunch of wimps. If Howard Dean was making this movie, he’d show the same scene of those guys being silent.”

Q: When you show footage of Bush in the National Guard, you play an excerpt from Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” Isn’t that a cheap shot?

Moore: “I was in the editing room and there were too many documents and words in that scene, and I wanted some music to spice it up. It’s an amazing coincidence that I would land on that song, isn’t it?”

Q: You make the point that the Bush administration has a special relationship with the Saudis. How is that any different from the special relationship many Washington leaders have with the state of Israel?


Moore: One big difference is that Israel is a democracy and Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. They celebrated New Year’s Day a few years ago by chopping people’s heads off. Maybe I missed that when it happened in Israel. Anyway, the support Bush and the Republicans feign for Israel is because Israel is near our oil. If the oil wasn’t there, I bet those same Republicans wouldn’t [care] about Israel.”

It was a vintage Moore performance, like his films, full of cheeky humor, arresting detail and passionate rhetoric. For me, the problem with Moore is that if you judge him as a documentary filmmaker, his work is undermined by too many shaded facts and slippery conclusions. But if you judge him as a political satirist, he’s a supremely gifted bomb thrower. After all, there is nothing in “9/11” that’s any more outrageous than what you can hear any day on Rush Limbaugh’s or Sean Hannity’s radio shows.

We seem to love rabble-rousers of all political stripes. But if Moore is going to bash Bush as a liar and ridicule the news media as lap dogs, his case needs to be airtight. When you’re a fearless muckraker, you look awfully silly stomping around with big gobs of mud on your own shoes.

The Big Picture runs Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.