Though Fahrenheit 911 may be remembered as the political documentary of the season, Control Room is in many respects more important. Made by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, this documentary chronicles the inner workings of the Al-Jazeera television network during the latest Gulf War. Control Room offers insights into the motivations behind the network, and a rare (in US media, anyway) glimpse into the world of the liberal Arab intelligensia. On top of that, Control Room offers a rare opportunity to see journalists talking openly about the politics of news coverage.
It may be tempting to draw parallels between CNN’s rise to prominence in the second Gulf War (1991) and Al-Jazeera’s experience in 2003. But some important differences exist. By 2003, Al-Jazeera already had more reach in the Arab world than any other network, and was already a much more significant political actor than CNN will ever be: they had already been banned by several regimes they had criticized, and had been attacked by officials on nearly every side of the conflicts they cover. Moreover, Al-Jazeera’s self-described mission is to bring western-style journalism (and by extension, western-style democracy) to its Arab audience. CNN’s self- described mission in 1991 was to become a competitor for the advertising dollars of the major networks.
As is usually the case for documentaries, Control Room focuses on character development. The journalists highlighted in the film emerge as complex people with complex political worldviews. They believe, most strongly, in the standard western ideologies of journalism: get the truth out, cover all sides of the conflict, let the audience decide. At one point, Control Room unintentionally mimics several documentaries on the New York Times, essentially arguing that the channel does their job well because they “get complaints from both sides”: we see repeated clips of Donald Rumsfeld attacking Al-Jazeera’s coverage as lies, while the Iraqi Information Minister called Al-Jazeera a “mouthpiece of the United States.” In response to western criticism at one point, reporter Hassan Ibrahim sighs and says “they don’t understand, we’re the moderates.”
The reality, of course, is much more complex. In one striking scene, senior producer Sameer Khader interviews an American whom he is told is a “news analyst” but is actually a political activist, who gives Khader the usual anti-Bush adminstration line. Afterwards, Khader is furious; he runs out from the studio into the newsroom to upbraid a young assistant who had scheduled the interview. “This is a news program: we want analysis, not ideology!” he yells. But Khader is no simple idealogue. Later in the film he confesses that he would enjoy working for Fox News, and that he hopes to send his children to college in the United States.
Another standard western journalistic behavior we see from the Al-Jazeera reporters is ventriloquizing their audience. The important difference is that their audience – whether real or imagined – holds very different views from the presumed audiences that western networks address. At US central command during the war, we are repeatedly shown scenes where Al-Jazeera reporters are asked to represent the mindset of their Arab audience. Particularly striking are the exchanges between Al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim and Lieutenant Josh Rushing, who is the US military’s main public relations officer. Though Rushing is quite good at what he does, and quite intelligent, Ibrahim has to explain to him several occasions that Arab audiences won’t automatically view the US as a benevolent savior. At one point, Rushing tells Ibrahim that his audience should be glad that the US spent so much money on “precision” missiles so that there would be few civilian casualties. “We’ve come a long way since the firebombing of Dresden,” says Rushing. “But you did not have television when you bombed Dresden,” replies Ibrahim, “now you do.”
The one exception to the reporters’ acceptance of western journalistic ideology is in the area of objectivity, that sacred cow of US journalism. When a US reporter questions an Al-Jazeera producer about her objectivity or lack thereof, she fires back “I will answer your question with a question: can you be objective?” As is well known to media critics on both the left and the right, it is impossible to cover a war “objectively,” from a position outside nation and kinship. Unlike CNN, Al-Jazeera freely acknowledges its positionality, but its key players still believe in the possibility of good journalism.
Control Room features all the stuff you would expect: gruesome pictures of war casualties, footage of US prisoners of war, the bombing of three networks (including Al-Jazeera) in Baghdad. In fact, it does a better job of showing the real tragedy of Bush’s second war than Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.
In the end, the film perhaps errs on the side of celebrating Al-Jazeera, and in that way it is like countless other documentaries about journalists. Where it shines, though, is in its presentation of Al-Jazeera as a legitimate and important actor in the global news industry. It is an important glimpse into the hope for a more democratic Arab world – not in attacks from outside, but through change within.
For further information, see the Control Room website.