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by Lauren Soffer

Though Michael Moore’s film, Bowling for Columbine, won the Academy Award for best

documentary, it is questionable whether the film should be considered a documentary. The film

manipulates the facts, presumably to make the film more effectivly portray USC professor, Barry

Glassner’s, “culture of fear”. While Bowling for Columbine is extremely effective, in that it

exposes America’s “culture of fear” by making the film accessible, entertaining, and human, the

film is ultimately unethical because it skewes facts, further perpetuating fear.

Glassner’s “culture of fear” claims that the media inspires the population to be

excessively fearful. Whether it is about diseases, crime, racism, or school shootings, “journalists,

politicians, and other opinion leaders foster fears […] both by what they play up and what they

play down” (Black Men 109). The result is people “worrying disproportionately about

legitimate” and less legitimate problems (Why 1). The media, for example, gave such extensive

coverage of “flesh-eating bacteria” in 1994 that fears of the bacteria became substantially more

epidemic than the bacteria itself. In a “culture of fear”, the media’s degree of coverage can send

unwarranted fears escalating out of control and warranted fears into oblivion.

The fact that Bowling for Columbine is portrayed as a documentary makes it a more

effective presentation of America’s “culture of fear”. If viewers believe they are watching a

documentary, they are more inclined to simply accept what they see as fact, without questioning

its validity. If the ideas are believed to be facts, viewers are more likely fear what they hear

because they are more likely to believe they are being presented with very real threats.

Portraying the film as a documentary implies that it is an accurate work. The Academy of
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Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a documentary as a film with its “emphasis […] on fact

and not on fiction” (1). However effective, the facts of Bowling for Columbine are twisted to the

point that the film no longer fits the definition of a documentary.

Bowling for Columbine’s effective portrayal of a “culture of fear” lies in its ability to be

accessible and entertaining. The animated portion of the film exemplifies these qualities. The

segment depicts American history in terms of fear, such as the Ku Klux Klan forming in reation

to white men’s fear of recently freed slaves. This explanation of history is novel. More

importantly, it sheds light on the origins of America’s current “culture of fear” because, if fear

was part of America’s historical culture, it makes it more probable and understandable that

America would have fear in its modern culture. In other words, the sequence gives a chronology

to the development of America’s current “culture of fear”. The animated nature of the section

makes it easily understandable and enjoyable to watch. Putting the segment into an animated

format brings the content down to a level that the general population is able to understand.

Animation makes it enjoyable because animation is associated with fun and humor. In fact, the

cartoon employs the humor of its casual and nonchalant attitude to enhance its accessible and

entertaining qualities.

To further place emphasis on America’s “culture of fear”, Bowling for Columbine utilizes

humanizing tactics. These humanizing tactics result in an effective portrayal of the “culture of

fear”. This is especially the case in the representation of the news coverage of the shooting at

Buell Elementary School. The film shows that the media put its emphasis on the fact that a black

child shot and killed a white child. The film implies that this emphasis will lead to further fear of

black people. Bowling for Columbine then delves into the human side, the “true” side of the
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story, to illustrate that such emphasis is merely a product of and feeds into America’s illegitimate

“culture of fear”. The film shows that fear is unjustified because the shooter was really just a

child from a family facing hard times. In other words, by humanizing the story, the film shows

the media’s fallacy in causing the public to fear black people and the public’s fallacy in believing

the media, causing them to fear black people

Yet, in exposing the media’s fallacy, the film perpetrates one fallacy of its own. Bowling

for Columbine spends so much time on the elementary school shooting that it implies the

shooting must be of significance (more than the fact that it is a tragedy). The length of the

segment implies that the shooting is indicative of something larger, such as a trend. However,

statistically Glassner indicates the shooting is just the opposite. Glassner explains that the

shooting and other similar shootings at the time “did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide

rates had declined by 30 percent in recent years” (Introduction 2). In fact, Glassner elaborates

that “more than three times as many people were killed by lightning than by violence at

schools” (Introduction 2). In light of these statistics that show that school shootings can be

described as uncharacteristic and abnormal, treating school shootings as a disturbing trend, as

Bowling for Columbine does, is unethical. It is unethical because misrepresentation of the facts

creates an unjustified fear in the viewer. In the film’s attempt to expose the media’s

manipulation of the facts, as in the elementary school case, it engages in the very same tactics

and feeds the “culture of fear”.

In the film, the unethical inspiration of fear is a constant theme that surfaces again in

segments about the NRA. According to David T. Hardy, a lawyer devoted to first and second

amendment rights issues, Bowling for Columbine’s segments on the Denver NRA Meeting and
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the Flint Rally were purposely manipulated to make the NRA appear as people who should be

feared (2). The film portrays Charlton Heston and the NRA visit to Denver for a rally a mere ten

days after the incidents at Columbine. Heston is shown giving a speech there that could be

characterized as heartless. What the film portrays, however, differs greatly from the facts. The

rally had nothing directly to do with Columbine; it was, instead, a regular meeting that had been

scheduled long before the tragedy (Hardy 2). The NRA cancelled every scheduled event except

the members’ meeting in which Heston’s speech was given. In addition to these important

omissions of the facts, the film edits Heston’s speech in such a way that it makes lines from

several different paragraphs appear as one group of sentences (Hardy 3). The speech was also

edited to include a line from an entirely different speech made at an entirely different time and

location (Hardy 3). Michael Moore wrote a response to similar claims and defended his editing

choices. He wrote, in regard to the editing in Heston’s speech, that “I chose to leave most of this

out and not make Heston look as evil as he actually was” (Moore 5). But upon reviewing full

transcripts of Heston’s speech, as provided by Hardy, putting the lines used in the film into

context make Heston seem of better character, not worse, as Moore claims.

Bowling for Columbine employs equally questionable techniques when it discusses the

Flint rally. The film uses editing and camera techniques to imply that Heston and the NRA came

to Flint only 48 hours after the elementary shooting in the same city (Hardy 5). In reality, the

speech Heston gave at Flint was not for an NRA rally, and the speech took place eight months

after the Flint school shooting (Hardy 5). Inaccurately portraying Charlton Heston and the NRA

in the way the film does is unethical because it perpetuates fear among the viewers of the film.
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The film’s portrayal generates fear of the people in the NRA who seem to be so fearful

themselves that they are still gung-ho about guns even after such tragedies.

The unethical inspiration of fear arises again in regard to questionable gun homicide

numbers. Bowling for Columbine states that America experienced 11,127 gun homicides in a

year (Hardy 10). Hardy, however, writes that he could not find verification for this figure until

he added “the figure for legally-justified homicides: self-defense and police use against

criminals” (10). Moore wrote in a rebuttal of criticism that his statistic came from “a report from

the Center for Disease Control”, but data on the CDC website indicate that Moore derived the

number in the fashion Hardy described (5). The unethical nature of this tactic lies in the film’s

portrayal of the number as frighteningly high when in actuality, according to Glassner, “the crime

rate had already fallen for a half dozen consecutive years” (Introduction 1). Then, the film

increases the gun homicide number, suggesting Moore wanted to make the number even more

frightening. The result is the viewer’s fear of rampant gun homicides (which according to the

film are supposedly perpetrated out of fear) increases after viewing the film. Again the viewer

has an unjustified and disproportionate fear that greatly contributes to a “culture of fear”.

It is possible to explain how Bowling for Columbine could be so effective yet so

unethical. Indeed, because the film is readily understandable, enjoyable, and human, it is very

effective, and because it distorts the facts, it is unethical. In Bowling for Columbine the effective

and ethical portrayal of Glassner’s “culture of fear” are connected. The film becomes so

concerned with being effective it neglected ethics. So while the film may be accessible,

entertaining, and emotional with ideas that resonate, it lacks factual truth. But this does not

necessarily mean that one must come at the expense of the other. It is, instead, quite possible
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that future documentaries will learn from Bowling for Columbine’s shortcomings and not

compromise the integrity of the facts in order to be available, entertaining, and personal. These

future filmmakers may choose to create films in which effectiveness and ethicality exist

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Works Cited

“Special Rules for The Documentary Awards.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

25 Nov 2003 <>

Bowling for Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. Alliance Atlantis and United Artists, 2002.

Glassner, Barry. “Why Americans Fear the Wrong Things.” Introduction, The Culture of Fear.

NewYork: Basic Books, 2000. Bowling for Columbine Website. 11 Nov 2003 <http://> <http://>

---. “Black Men: How to Perpetuate Prejudice Without Really Trying.” Chapter 5, The Culture

of Fear. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Hardy, David T. “Bowling for Columbine: Documentary or Fiction?” Home Page of David T.

Hardy. 11 Nov 2003 <>

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Agenbite of Outwit.” <


Moore, Michael. “How to Deal with the Lies and the Lying Liars When They Lie about

‘Bowling for Columbine.’” <>

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