Making A Film -- And A Narrative
Right-wing filmmakers found a willing (and possibly paid) partner in the Media Research Center for a four-year campaign to fund, shoot and promote -- and manufacture victimhood over -- a movie about rogue abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.
By Terry Krepel
The MRC's PR work for the couple's film began in March 2014, when Katie Yoder wrote a puff piece about McAleer's crowdfunding campaign to finance production of the Gosnell film. Yoder let McAleer play the victim card by complaining that Kickstarter wouldn't host his crowdfunding campaign because he wouldn't tone down his language. She added, "In the past, the Phelim McAleer team garnered media applause for successfully producing the controversial documentary film 'FrackNation' via Kickstarter."
Actually, not so much. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that "FrackNation's" "roster of 'executive producers' who have donated at least $1 includes scores of energy industry associates," adding that "Available footage and trailers of 'FrackNation' play rather like industry commercials that have already been seen across Western Pennsylvania, telling stories of farmers and landowners who say gas drilling provides economic stability." The San Francisco Chronicle has called McAleer "climate denial's Michael Moore" for his eagerness to distort the facts.
The next month, Yoder cranked out another article about McAleer's campaign, this time trying to manufacture a claim of bias in the midst of suggesting that McAleer is no different than acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee:
Spike Lee and Phelim McAleer are both film-makers who’ve both achieved something unique: each has successfully raised $1.4 million to finance his movie through crowdfunding a campaign seeking donations from the public. But Spike Lee is famous and established, with a net worth of $40 million. Phelim McAleer isn’t. So it’s a bit odd that the networks took note when Lee (a famous, if not household name) did it, but not when McAleer overcame greater odds to reach that number. Well, it would be odd, except that McAleer is trying to fund a movie about abortionist Kermit Gosnell America’s “most prolific serial killer,” and the media’s most ignored story.
Yoder seems not to have considered the possibility that Lee is a respected filmmaker while McAleer is a factually challenged right-wing propagandist whose filmmaking, to our knowledge, has demonstrated none of the artistry exhibited by Lee.
As far as Yoder's crack about Gosnell being "the media’s most ignored story" goes that's simply not true -- Gosnell has received plenty of media coverage, albeit not of the biased, agenda-serving type that she and her fellow anti-abortion activists wanted. When Gosnell was arrested in 2011, conservative-leaning Fox News provided the least coverage of the three cable news channels. As Mother Jones' Kevin Drum showed, right-wing media devoted much less time to the trial itself than to manufactured outrage that other media outlets weren't covering it, and right-wingers' concern over Gosnell was more about working the refs and exploiting the issue for their anti-abortion agenda than it was about, say, justice for Gosnell's victims.
And despite the MRC haranguing the media about not covering the trial to its satisfaction, no one at the MRC went to Philadelphia to attend the trial until a month after it started, as ConWebWatch documented at the time.
Blowing money on a billboard
McAleer then apparently wasted some of his crowdfunding money designated to make his Gosnell movie by blowing it on a spite-driven billboard instead -- and the MRC's Yoder was ready and willing to promote his spite. A May 1 item by Yoder touted how McAleer "erected a billboard slamming Kickstarter a half mile away from Kickstarter’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York," attacking the company for putting restrictions on McAleer's crowdfunding efforts there. (McAleer's campaign moved to another site.) Yoder went on to proclaim that "the Gosnell movie’s Indiegogo campaign boasts more than $1.6 million raised with 16,500 funders 76 percent of the $2.1 million goal."
One thing Yoder didn't ask, however: Where did McAleer get the presumed thousands of dollars it costs to erect a spiteful billboard in the middle of New York City? Did he take that money out of his crowdfunding pot, even though that little vendetta billboard has nothing to do with movie production? If so, did McAleer obtain permission from his donors to spend money on something other than movie production?
Yoder clearly didn't want to know the answer -- she's McAleer's PR agent, after all.
Later that month, an item by the MRC's Matt Philbin gushed over how "the Gosnell Movie campaign has reached its initial goal of raising $2.1 million from more than 23,000 individual donors through the crowd-funding site Indiegogo," painting the campaign as the story of how "a plucky upstart overcomes establishment hostility to reach a seemingly impossible goal" and whining how the media "don't want to talk about" Gosnell.
But Philbin made no mention of the spiteful billboard campaign McAleer launched against Kickstarter as an act of revenge for Kickstarter imposing standards on McAleer's crowdfunding campaign (which ultimately used another website). Billboards are costly, after all. Did McAleer use his crowdfunding money to pay for it? If so, did he receive permission from his crowdfunders to use the money in that way?
Those are basic questions that go to the heart of whether McAleer is a good steward of the millions he's raising for his propaganda film (which is what is, despite McAleer's unchallenged claim in Philbin's piece that he just wants to tell "the truth about Kermit Gosnell and his crimes"). But Philbin clearly doesn't want to know the answer -- he's too busy making sure McAleer is pocketing even more cash.
At the same time the MRC was engaging in all this activism on behalf of McAleer and his film, Terry Jeffrey, editor in chief of the MRC's "news" division, CNSNews.com, conducted a 13-minute video interview with McAleer designed to promote his Gosnell crowdfunding project. As one might expect in an interview where the subject is paying for the microphone, Jeffrey tosses softball after softball and doesn't challenge anything McAleer says. Jeffrey laughably asks how McAleer's funding his film when, as we now know, he knows perfectly well how it's being done and he's being paid to help raise that money.
Jeffrey also emphasized that McAleer will be making a "factually accurate, true-to-life dramatization" of the Gosnell case, even though McAleer has a history of distorting facts in his previous work.
Demonstrating that all of CNS' "news" managers were in on the deal, managing editor Michael W. Chapman wrote an article touting how a couple of has-been right-wing actors "call upon viewers to donate to gosnellmovie.com, a proposed documentary on Gosnell by filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney."
Did McAleer pay MRC for promotion?
An August 2015 MRC email touting McAleer and McElhinney as the latest "fantastic speakers" added to next year's MRC junket -- er, Caribbean cruise featured what "Ann and Phelim said about the upcoming MRC cruise":
“We’ve had the privilege of working with Brent Bozell and his team to promote our movie about the crimes of Dr. Gosnell. We’ve never been around a more dedicated team of professionals. When they commit to something, they do it right. So we expect nothing but the best on this cruise.”
The email went on to describe McAleer and McElhinney as "great friends of the MRC."
That looks to us like an admission that those MRC posts on McAleer's fundraising campaign were at least done on McAleer's request, if not actually paid for by McAleer -- something that the MRC never disclosed to its readers. Further, neither Jeffrey nor Chapman disclose that their CNS promotions were done with the full cooperation, and possibly the money, of McAleer.
If a "liberal media" outlet had committed this severe breach of journalistic ethics, the MRC would be screaming bloody murder. But the MRC has never been interested in holding itself to the standards it demands that others follow.
A January 2017 column by Bozell and Tim Graham gave a prominent plug to McAleer's " newly released book on Gosnell without any discussion of whether McAleer was paying them to do so. Beyond that, it they did little more than rehash bogus talking points about how Gosnell's trial was under-covered.
The movie cometh at last
McAleer ultimately got his movie made and prepared it for release in the fall of 2018 -- with the promotional help of the MRC, of course.
A June 27 post by Katie Yoder touted an "exclusive statement to MRC Culture" from McElhinney. Yoder forwarded all the appropriate talking points, including baselessly suggesting that Gosnell is representative of all abortion providers, while also relying on a Hollywood Reporter article for the meat of her post. Which led to this curious detail late in the post:
According to THR, the distribution deal came after Judge Jeffrey Minehart, presiding at Gosnell’s trial, “sued to block the release of the film, fearing he was portrayed as part of ‘Philadelphia’s liberal corrupt government.’”
That's better known as defamation. That seems like an important issue to address given that it held up release of the film, but Yoder was apparently not interested in getting an "exclusive statement" from McElhinney discussing the lawsuit or how exactly it was "resolved." Much of what's online about the lawsuit concerns itself with procedural matters, and nothing mentions how Minehart's lawsuit was settled.
But that would have gotten in the way of the PR function of Yoder's post, and McAleer and McElhinney are certainly not paying the MRC for that.
Yoder's next love letter to McAleer and his film was an Aug. 15 piece gushing over the film's trailer:
On Tuesday, The Hollywood Reporter (THR) broke the news that filmmakers had released a trailer for the anticipated Gosnell film, which stars big name actors.
Yoder was in full PR mode again, declaring that "the film isn’t just for pro-life audiences, as one scene in the trailer stresses."
Since she's doing press for the film instead of being even remotely objective, Yoder never gets around to asking McAleer an unanswered question from her last post on the film, despite getting access to an "exclusive statement" from him: How did McAleer settle the defamation lawsuit filed against him by the judge who presided at Gosnell's trial over his portrayal in McAleer's book on Gosnell and his presumed treatment in the film? That would seem to be an important, newsworthy issue, given that the lawsuit had stalled production on the movie and settling it allowed the film to move forward.
But Yoder isn't interested in reporting -- this is PR, remember? Thus, she concludes by gushing even further, "With big names involved, the film promises to be a success." It's almost as if McAleer paid Yoder to say that.
Ironically, while Yoder was doing her fawning PR job for McAleer's film -- more than a month before the film's official opening in October -- is doubly hypocritical given that a couple weeks earlier, her MRC colleague (well, intern) Peter Sifre was complaining that CNN was "devoting an entire segment to the promotion of an anti-Trump book that hasn’t even come out yet," huffing that "reporting of non-news stories should not be tolerated," adding: "[B]ecause the book has not come out yet, we don’t know what it contains. Thus, there is no news to report. This segment is nothing but book promotion of an obviously anti-Trump book that hasn’t even come out yet."
Peter Sifre, meet Katie Yoder.
Spinning away to the end
"Gosnell" continued to show middling performance at the box office -- earning only about $3.3 million after three weeks in theaters -- but the MRC was still on (apparently bought-and-paid-for) PR patrol for the film.
In addition to publishing a column by Cal Thomas, the MRC was staying on message with its own work (with, presumably the McAleer stamp of approval). An Oct. 15 post by Gabriel Hays made a big deal out of how it "received a 99% score in terms of general audience approval" on Rotten Tomatoes, then launched into an anti-media tirade with the help of McElhinney:
McElhinney summed it up, stating prior to the movie’s release that “Most Americans have never heard the name Dr. Kermit Gosnell because mainstream journalists chose not to cover the trail.” However she seemed confident that after the release of the film, “the media who ignored the story will have to explain to millions of people who will see the movie why they censored this story.”
The media failing to cover something to the extent right-wing activists demand does not equal being "twisted and conspiratorial." The fact that Hays believes this -- apparently inculcated by his work at the MRC -- shows how twisted and conspiratorial his employer is.
Graham and Bozell cranked out a column whining that major newspapers didn't review the film and playing the "elite" card against anyone who might be critical of it: "In short, the cultural elites who decry how conservatives live in a 'post-truth era' have sought to bury the truth about the abortion industry. Those factories of death are an important part of the liberal base, and for them, protecting abortion on demand is defending the essence of their cultural movement."
And just like right-wing activists made alleged lack of coverage of the Gosnell trial an issue, McAleer and Co. -- and the MRC -- are going the conspiracy route on the "Gosnell" film by blaming lack of media coverage of its polemic for its poor performance. An Oct. 22 CNS article by Emily Ward touted how McAleer and McElhinney are attacking the National Society of Film Critics for purportedly conspiring against the film by not reviewing it. Ward gave no indication she contacted the National Society of Film Critics for a response that would have given her article balance.
(Ward also highlighted a right-wing media report about how "many movie theaters dropped the film in spite of clear interest from audiences" --never mind the fact that a film's opening week is typically the widest theater distribution a film sees and theaters drop it as interest wanes and new films are released.)
Meanwhile, over at CNS, Craig Bannister tried to spin the film's slow opening-weekend performance, where it placed 12th, by highlight that it was "breaking into the top 10 on Sunday." He also touted its Rotten Tomatoes viewer ratings.
CNS published a column by Sam Sorbo -- whose claim to fame is being married to a celebrity, onetime "Hercules" Kevin Sorbo -- repeating the right-wing line that Gosnell's trial was suppressed by the "main stream media' and parrots the movie's propaganstic message: "Let us only hope the movie succeeds as well as the media’s attempt to quash its lessons: Abortion kills, all the time, and the left’s concern for minorities directly corresponds to its financial benefit."
It also published a column by Grazie Chrstie of the Catholic Association -- a conservative group that monitors coverage of Catholicism in the media -- also staying on message while also conceding the film is all about an anti-abortion agenda, declaring that "The movie poses this question for a caring society: Should not abortion clinics be regulated more, not less, rigorously than manicure parlors?"
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"Gosnell" wound down quietly -- after a six-week run, it had earned only $3.6 million and was down to just a handful of theaters. By one definition, it's a success because it apparently made back its production costs, reportedly $2.4 million, meaning that McAleer and McElhinney did OK for themselves. They also did a good job of manufacturing controversies to fund and promote the film.
And the MRC was there every step of the way to help manufacture and amplify those controversies, and to serve up fawning, uncritical coverage of the film that never strayed from the predetermined narrative.
Just like McAleer planned -- and possibly paid for.