The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Fair and Balanced

I saw the movie Control Room on Saturday (here is a link to Roger Ebert's review). It is a documentary about Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news network, which broadcasts via satellite to over 40 million people in the Middle East (and now to many Americans as well).

The documentary crew stays out of the way of the action, focusing on the behind the scenes goings-on at US Central Command in Qatar, the temporary media center established in the Middle East to cover the run up to the Iraq war.

Going in, all I knew of this movie was the general topic. I expected it to be very sympathetic to Al-Jazeera, and critical of western media. The film is actually very balanced. Al-Jazeera has a somewhat undeserved bad reputation in the west. One of the reasons that the station is influential in the Middle East is because of its independence from any government. In a region where almost all media is state owned, Al-Jazeera is a refreshing exception. It's independence gives it unparalleled credibility in the Mideast. Al-Jazeera's anti-American bias (which is very real) is more a result of catering to an audience than any profound ideological drive. Indeed, the station producer Samir Khader claims that if he were offered a job at Foxnews in America he would jump at the chance.

While the tone of the movie is decidedly anti-war, it is not anti-American. The American media is just as frustrated with the US government's lack of candor as Al-Jazeera. American journalists are always represented as at least attempting to be objective. They are skeptical of the government, and talk extensively with their Arab counterparts on what constitutes objectivity.

Even the US military, while often shown as politically tone deaf and lacking propaganda skills, is redeemed by Lt. Josh Rushing, a US Marine spokesperson. While maintaining the company line throughout that we are there to free Iraq, he is also open to the Arab perspective. He goes out of his way to make friends with everyone stuck at Centcom, and never cowers from a policy discussion. At one point he realizes that he feels indifferent towards enemy casualties, but feels deep sadness when his comrades are struck down, and you can tell that this realization has a profound impact on him. The moments of the film that focus on him are in stark contrast to those that focus on any other military personnel. In general, the military spouts off rehearsed rhetoric, and offers up almost no information other than obvious propaganda.

However, the focus on this aspect of the US Military is the movie's greatest weakness. In a way, the premise of the whole film is that the US Military is untruthful and engages in a massive amount of propaganda, whereas this small independent satellite channel tries to be as objective as possible. But what do you expect from the US Military? It is, after all, not their job to cater to reporters. Al-Jazeera reporters act indignant that the military will not reveal the troops' proximity to Baghdad. Clearly this was strategically important information, and it was perfectly reasonable for the military to deny this information to reporters.

The movie would have been much more effective if it had focused on the western media vs. Al-Jazeera, and there was certainly a lot to work with on that angle. Al-Jazeera is unapologetic with regard to showing blood and gore. They are at the scene of every civilian casualty (real or contrived) to get whatever footage they can. They show dead troops (although they focus on dead American troops more than Iraqi troops) and troops being held hostage. Even if they do skew their coverage, it is indisputable that they show footage that most American media would not touch with a ten foot pole. However, this angle is largely ignored.

Still, Control Room is an eye opener. The anti-American coverage inherent in Al-Jazeera's coverage is more pragmatic than malevolent. It also exposes the woeful state of American propaganda and persuasion. The Arab world appears to be more open to ideas than we give it credit for. But Anti-American sentiment runs deep, and if we can't change that underlying problem, all of the nation-building and multi-lateral campaigns in the world will not make a difference.


  • Control room is the best documentary to hit theaters this year; forget Fahrenheit, forget The Corporation (which was good and detailed but not gripping), Control is superior. What they showed me both suprised and educated me. Every journalism major out there should watch this film.

    Josh Rushing does a fabulous job with the task he's charged with. I'm not sure if finding a more compotent soldier for that job would be possible. Kudos to Mr. Rushing.

    I agree that the film is anti-war, but is anyone really pro-war? Sometimes war is necessary; that doesn't mean it's pretty.

    "But Anti-American sentiment runs deep, and if we can't change that underlying problem, all of the nation-building and multi-lateral campaigns in the world will not make a difference."

    And yet, we haven't done anything notable on this, a most crucial front in the "war on terror."

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 9:07 PM  

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