"Especially since the nation is so politically polarized," says Jeff Stein, a professor of communications at Wartburg College in Iowa, "these somewhat slanted message-driven documentaries are really not designed to change someone's opinion, but rather to reinforce beliefs people already hold, so they will ... be more aggressive come election time."
Conversely, the films, like negative campaign ads, can depress turnout by chilling partisan fires. A film, like a campaign ad, may not persuade a voter to embrace a particular point of view, but the message can influence the kind of issues people are discussing.
"Even pro-Bush opponents of Moore's argument end up having to explain why the President sat in that Florida classroom for seven minutes after being informed of the World Trade Center attack," says Stephen Klien, an assistant professor of speech communication at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. "Whether the reason was justified or not, that image of Bush sitting silently while a clock ticks off minutes and seconds becomes a focal point for public discussion of the events of Sept. 11 - due in large part to the provocative attention Moore's film pays to that episode."
Moore's polemic, deliberately timed for release on video and DVD this month, is in good company. Moviegoers also made moderate successes of Harry Thomason's and Nick Perry's "The Hunting of the President," Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," and Errol Morris's "The Fog of War," an Academy Award-winning documentary featuring Robert McNamara's insights on modern history and combat.
The deeper significance of this deluge of politically charged films and their popularity, many argue, is the changing landscape of American journalism. Fairness, balance, and objectivity have long been its bedrock values - and are still touted in many organizations' advertisements. But many citizens now prefer blunt-spoken, partisan talk shows to the evening news, observers note.