Gaslight: A flim-flam by Josh Fox

Gaslight: To manipulate events and situations in order to make a person believe that he or she is crazy.

Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD) got gaslighted big time this week by Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated “activist-director” of the documentary Gasland.

When Rep. Harris booted Fox from a congressional hearing on hydraulic fracturing–or fracking–he undoubtedly assumed that as Subcommittee Chairman he had both the authority and the duty to remove an uncredentialed anti-fracking activist from his hearing room.

But by the time he got back to his office, he must have wondered what he was thinking when he ordered the Capitol police to remove the torchbearer of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution from his hearing.

According to the HuffPost, MSNBC, the Twitter-sphere, hundreds of thousands of Facebookians, and Professional-Journalist-and-Free-Speech-Champion Fox himself, that is exactly what Harris did.

“They threw out John Boehner’s promise of transparency in Congress in handcuffs with me yesterday. They threw out the First Amendment and they threw out the Constitution. And now they’re paying for it,” he said on Current TV.

He told U.S. News and World Report that his near-martyrdom was “a civil rights violation and a human rights violation.” (Being hounded by your government to the point of suicide is a human rights violation, Josh. Getting arrested for refusing an order to leave a Congressional hearing is not.)

Ironically, Fox’s bravura turn as “Joan-alist of Arc” is prima facie evidence that he is no journalist. Reporters expect to get thrown out of hearings that they’re not allowed to be in. It’s all part of the job.

It is also generally accepted that real journalists at least pretend to be objective in their pursuit of the truth. But it turns out that Fox isn’t really all that fair and balanced after all. In one of the most dramatic scenes in Gasland, Mike Markham lights his tap water on fire, which Fox said was the result of nearby fracking. But that wasn’t true, according to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. And Fox knew it wasn’t.

In fact, Gasland featured numerous claims about fracking that were demonstrably false, despite having been presented impartial scientific research that debunked those claims prior to the film’s completion.

Perhaps most damaging to Fox’s journalistic integrity is the lengths he went to hide this exculpatory information from the public.

Enter real journalist and documentary filmmaker Phelim McAleer. At a Gasland screening in Chicago, McAleer asked Fox if he was aware of reports of spigots spewing flames decades before the Markham in-sink-eration. He cited a 1976 report which attributed the flaming tap water phenomenon to naturally occurring methane build-up in the aquifers.

In a moment of uncomfortable candor, Fox called McAleer’s bet and raised him with, “Well, I don’t care about the report from 1976. There are reports from 1936 that people say they can light their water on fire in New York state. But that’s no bearing on their situation, at all.”

Armed with a 75-year-old study that he hadn’t been aware of, McAleer went all in. “Most people watching your film would think that lighting your water started with fracking. You said yourself people lit their water long before fracking started, isn’t that correct?”

”Yes, but it’s not relevant,” Fox said.

Documentary gold! But you can’t find that nugget on Youtube or Vimoe. Fox’s lawyers got it yanked off of those public forums. While not a human rights violation, that censorship certainly smacks of hypocrisy.

You can see the exchange at But if you don’t like going to the movies by yourself, you may want to watch it with a friend. To date, that site has only received 9,581 visitors (and at least a dozen of those visits were mine as I transcribed the exchange). Compare that to the HuffPost article about Fox’s arrest that has garnered 22,000 comments, 31,500 Facebook “shares,” and 109,000 Facebook “likes” just in the past three days.

This whole fracking mess offers many useful PR lessons, not the least of which is “always consider the optics and the long-term ramifications of your actions, especially when you’re on camera.”

It also reignites the debate over what it means to be a credentialed “journalist.” (And it’s a debate worth having now that the Internet has altered the way we communicate.) As McAleer showed us, some documentary filmmakers actually are journalists. And as Fox showed us, some of them just play that role when it suits them.

UPDATE: Lost in all the gnashing of teeth over trampled First Amendment rights is the fact that Fox apparently orchestrated an elaborate hoax to get his film crews (plural) into the hearing. And since the hearing was carried live over CSPAN and was streaming over the Subcommittee’s website, it seems likely that Activist Fox wanted to tape the hearing for his anti-fracking crusade while poor Journalist Fox just got swept up in the scam.


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