“The media did a wonderful job of (convincing) the public that they should support the war. We killed a lot of civilians and I think we’re going to have to answer for that. I know it upsets a lot of people in the media that I’m not playing ball, that I’m not showing the images that they showed. I know it’s embarrassing to them because anybody who sees my film now knows that you were only presented with one side.”
Michael Moore ^ Entertainment Weekly, July 9
Where Moore’s blockbuster documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, offers glimpses of the war the Bush administration kept US television viewers from seeing, the overshadowed but illuminating Control Room offers glimpses of the US press in the process of being kept from showing them. It is the most significant work of any kind addressing the issue of objectivity in electronic journalism to come along in years.
And it couldn’t have come along at a more significant point in history. With the western and Arab worlds increasingly at one another’s throats, the sliver of hope for finding common ground this film provides is nothing short of a revelation. Directed by the Cairo-born, US-based filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, the movie goes behind the scenes at the infamous Arab news network, Al Jazeera, the independently owned broadcast outlet to which the White House is fond of referring as “the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden.”
The picture covers the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq and extending through the fall of Baghdad documenting the experience primarily from the point of view of station staff. In the course of the film, an American viewer is likely to make a number of extremely surprising discoveries. Among them, that these are some of the most articulate, philosophical, well educated and simply likable people you’re ever likely to run across in a TV newsroom.
Samir Khader is a chainsmoking producer with a combover who speaks perfect English. He could be a character out of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or Broadcast News if he didn’t also work for the most controversial news network in the world. Unlike Moore, Noujaim does not appear in her film or speak in voice over. She lets her subjects make the picture’s points and Khader makes a number of them with impressive eloquence and candor. “There should be truly free debate,” he asserts in response to charges the operation is airing anti-American propaganda by showing images of civilian casualties.
“Everything should be dealt with with openness.” When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld goes on American television and accuses the Iraqis of staging civilian deaths, even suggesting that children were being taken from their homes to be filmed at legitimate military targets as props, the broadcaster appears resigned to the mind games but adamant. “We want to show the human cost of war. We’re not like Rumsfeld, who says he cares about Iraqis. We care about them. We are Arabs like them. We are Muslims like them. Rumsfeld calls this incitement? I call this true journalism, the only true journalism in the world.”
Hassan Ibrahim is one of Al Jazeera’s top reporters. He’s a great big bear of a fellow who once worked for the BBC. From Al Jazeera’s studios in Qatar, he has a unique perspective on the cataclysm the US-British led coalition wreaks on the Iraqi people. He is featured in a series of riveting one-on-one exchanges with a Marine press spokesman by the name of Josh Rushing in which he gamely and good humoredly tries to talk some sense into the young Lieutenant.
In a characteristic scene, we see Ibrahim’s reaction to President
Bush’s televised outrage after US POWs are interviewed on Al Jazeera’s airwaves along with his accompanying claim that the Arab broadcast violated the Geneva Convention. “What about bombing a city without authorization from the United Nations?” the reporter laughs. “What about Guantanamo Bay? Now suddenly there’s a Geneva Convention?” The insight and its delivery wouldn’t be out of place on “The Daily Show.” And, keep in mind, this was well before US abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light.
And before the revelation that intelligence concerning WMDs had been sexed up or concocted outright. Yet Ibrahim seems to see the whole thing coming. “When did Saddam threaten you with WMDs?” he challenges Rushing in another scene, “People feel you are just inventing a reason for invading and taking their country so you can take control of their oil.”
In a succession of press conferences held during the war, Rumsfeld accuses the network of being a bunch of liars and of aiding the enemy. On April 8, 2003, not long after one such attack on Al Jazeera’s impartiality, US forces actually attack the network’s Baghdad headquarters sending missiles into the building and killing one of its reporters, Tarek Ayoub. Central Command spokesmen try to spin the incident but Khader points out that his company provided the US with coordinates for all of its bureaus before the invasion and that two other media outlets were attacked on the same day. “That was a crime that should be avenged,” Khader reflects with emotion. “At least investigated.” To date the administration has failed to do so.
Arab journalists weren’t the only ones who felt manipulated from afar as they tried to cover developments. At a CentCom briefing, a British reporter goes ballistic when a general holds up the famous deck of cards supposedly bearing photos of the 55 most wanted members of Saddam’s regime, promises to make the pack available and then hides behind his office door as a female officer tells members of the world’s press over and over that they can’t have a look after all.
The day coalition tanks rolled into Baghdad, the official military press briefing failed to mention the occurrence. Instead, spokesmen offered a subsequently discredited account of the Jesica Lynch rescue. “It seems like there’s an effort to manage the news in an unmanageable situation,” CNN correspondent Tom Mintier observed at the time. “They buried the lead. They’re very good at it.”
Media shows were another thing Bush & Co. were good at. At least as long as the TV coverage you watched was American. Those scenes of soldiers being greeted with flowers and of an Iraqi crowd toppling the statue of Saddam? All fake as that Thanksgiving turkey the president was photographed holding during his surprise visit to Baghdad. Arab viewers, meanwhile, watched what was really happening knowing the rest of the world was being fed lies and staged events. Referring to the April 9th statue toppling, Khader points out that there was no crowd. American cameras for whatever reason chose not to show the empty public square. And of the small band of young men who attacked the statue? “These were not Iraqis. I grew up here. These were not Iraqi accents. It was a very clever stunt. You forget the civilian deaths and only remember the statue.”
For all the media savvy the White House may have demonstrated in drumming up support on the homefront, it miscalculated badly in terms of the face it showed to the rest of the world. Launched in 1996, Al Jazeera was originally banned by some Middle Eastern governments for being critical of their regimes. As a result of its fierce independence and commitment to openness, it has grown to become the most trusted news network in the Arab world. Al Jazeera broadcast the war to more than 40 million Arab viewers. If the Unites States wanted to get on the Muslim world’s good side, it went about it in an awfully strange way.
Reflecting upon the missile attack on his station, the US military’s distortion and spin and the scores of innocent lives lost, an Al
Jazeera translator offers a prescient assessment of the legacy Bush policy has left in the region: “They radicalize people more and more. Soon there’ll be no more room for people like me who speak softly. People will begin to take things into their own hands.” Sound like anything you’ve seen on the news every night for the past year or so?
Here’s the sliver of hope: In contrast to everything we’ve been told, the people who run Al Jazeera turn out to be decent and level headed. Their hopes, dreams and ideals don’t seem all that different from those of most Americans. Some of them even seem to understand that what the American government does and what the American people feel is right can be two completely different things. And, amazingly, some of them still trust that the American people will intervene and stop the madness.
“The United States is going to stop the United States,” asserts Ibrahim in one of his final debates with Lt. Rushing. “I have absolute confidence in the US Constitution and the US people.” Ibrahim will be watching the results come in on election night. So will Rushing, though he won’t be watching from a military base for the first time in 14 years. The Pentagon has ordered him not to comment on Control Room and, as a result, he’s leaving the Marines.