Room: Adding Fairness and Balance to the US Media's portayal
of the 'War on Terror'
By Brad Friedman
At one point in the remarkable new documentary Control
Room, one of the women working in production at Al Jazeera
(one of the many suprisingly westernized production folks
who run the most popular satellite news channel in the Arab
World) speaks directly to the point of the "objectivity" of
"Are any U.S. journalists objective about this war? ...
This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage."
And so the "mirage" is here seen from a point of view as
yet unseen by most Americans in this eye-opening look at the
fall of Baghdad as projected through the prism of an Egyptian-American
documentarian with insider access to much of the goings on
at Al-Jazeera during that period.
The revelations are, to say the very least, quite surprising.
The tortured consciences and difficult dilemmas of the gate-keepers
in charge of presenting daily events of America's "War on
Terror" to the Arab world are shown - at least in this film
- to be a great deal more thoughtful than the "vicious, inaccurate
and inexcusable... mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden" that Donald
Rumsfeld and other US officials have painted them to be.
I'll admit that, prior to this film, I too was convinced
that Al Jazeera was essentially an anti-US propaganda machine
for the Arab world. I had heard nothing to the contrary via
any of the media in this country, mainstream or otherwise,
"liberal" or otherwise. The "fact" that Al Jazeera was an
anti-American agenda-driven organization was simply a given.
I had no reason to believe otherwise.
And that's coming from me, an anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush Administration,
"liberal" (in the eyes of most folks).
Imagine what the bulk of America must think of Al Jazeera!
All of which is, frankly, what makes this film such an important
one. If nothing else, as "fair balance" to counter the decidely
pro-American bias of the US media (including CBS, CNN, MSNBC
and all the other supposedly "left leaning" outlets in addition
to the clearly right-wing Fox News Channel).
Just one of the several extremely compelling characters
whose journey we follow during this period of the Iraq War
is Marine Lt. Josh Rushing who - as a representative for Central
Command in Qatar, just a few miles from Al Jazeera's headquarters
- finds himself wresting in the most extraordinary, heartfelt
terms with the conflicts of interest he finds himself smack
dab in the middle of.
Rushing's job, of course, is to help the US military paint
as positive a picture of their efforts in the Arab world via
the Arab media. But in dealing with actual human beings on
the firing end of the blunt super powers of the US, he is
seen as clearly challenged to question his own heartfelt beliefs
and his own role in the ever-necessary war time struggle to
win the hearts and minds of the people being conquered, liberated
or occupied (depending on one's point of view) via the media.
"It benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because
that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism
for the exact same reason," Rushing seems to understand.
It's a fascinating story to watch.
That same questioning of ideals and motivations is present
in the several other main characters shown here, most of whom
work for Al Jazeera - a phenomenon since it's inception in
1996 and which could be fairly seen as the "Fox News" of the
Arab World, in both popularity, content and "nationalistic"
point of view.
The staffers shared sense of self-searching in the midst
of this terror and horror is compellingly captured by filmmaker
Jehane Noujaim (co-director of 2001's Startup.com which entertainingly
documented the boom and bust of one of the Internet's early
Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist with Al Jazeera, and
just one of the film's players who clearly admires the character
of the United States and its people - if not the current administration
and policies thereof - says early on in the film that he has
"absolute confidence in the United States Constitution and
absolute confidence in the American people to stop this."
A viewpoint which is decidely uncharacteristic of the general
anti-American coloring given by the American media to the
bulk of the Arabic world.
And yet, Ibrahim says, "Democracy or I'll shoot you!" won't
In defending his network's decision to show footage of US
soldiers killed and in captivity and pictures of some of the
thousands of Iraqi casualities, he tells Rushing, "I'm sorry,
you can't have your cake and eat it too. You are the most
powerful nation on earth, I agree. You can defeat everybody,
I agree. But don't ask us to love it as well."
There is another remarkable scene where Al Jazeera producer,
Samir Khader, berates a staff member for arranging an interview
with an American who is completely one-sided against what
the American characterizes as a drive for "empiric rule" of
an Arab state. Khader is furious that such an unfair, unbalanced
viewpoint is being offered up to their viewers. He seems to
be rather sincere, as do our journalists, in the hopes at
least of offering a broad and balanced picture instead of
a one-sided screed.
Whether they are able to do so, and whether American journalists
are able to do so is at the heart of this film. It's a question
that every American should be forced to ponder and to look
at, when watching the media, with a critical eye.
Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen - particularly
as Michael Moore's film will likely suck most of the oxygen
out of the rest of the documentary world by next week.
As well, Americans may now well be too well hardened in
their partisan positions to be willing to give a fair and
balanced look to any other point of view than the one they
already subscribe to.
As the credits began to roll, and some of us in the theater
found ourselves moved to applaud yesterday, the elderly gentleman
in front of us accompanying his wife, turned around and muttered
more than quietly, "fucking traitors... all a bunch of fucking
To his credit, at least, he took the time to come out, and
bothered to watch the entire film. But it's a start.
Go see this movie if it comes to your town. It's a unique,
usually unseen perspective in this country, which is direly
needed at this time. And in the bargain, as it relates to
the choices we make in this necessary "War on Terror," it
provides a point of view which is critical for Americans to
begin coming to terms with. Sooner, I would urge, rather than
here to view the Control Room trailer).
Brad Friedman is a freelance writer and software designer.
He is also a proud "Liberal Hollywood Elitist" sharing all
of the great esteem and many rewards that come with it. His
blog can be read at http://www.BradFriedman.com/BradBlog.