Control Room, an independent documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim, investigates the Al-Jazeera news channel. She focuses the lens on a few major characters at Al-Jazeera, both on and off screen, to gather their attitudes toward towards journalism and the war in Iraq. The irony of American ignorance about the Middle East shows up in great relief as the American and Iraqi points of view are compared. While one Al-Jazeera reporter characterizes the US as having a “Democratize or I’ll shoot you” attitude, the Centcom spokesman confirms the entry of the military into Baghdad, but insists that they “didn’t want to.” Even as America and American interests control Iraq, the American government continues to insist any negative reports come from the “evil,” “animal,” “nationalistic” and “overemotional” Iraqis in the face of a war approved, as Bush states, by the “Almighty.”
American news channels demonize Al-Jazeera without allowing them a voice on their programming. Countless experts, advisors and insiders appear 24 hours a day on these channels and very, very few are from Iraq or other Middle Eastern countries. The few Arabs interviewed have lived in America for many years, have been schooled in America and now work for American governmental or educational institutions. Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, asks the American government and American experts to share their point of view and analysis on their channel. Several of the main reporters and the head of Al-Jazeera state that they make a concerted effort to remain balanced in their coverage of the war. They do not want to air anti-American sentiment without real analysis of the issues. One reporter wants his children to study in the US and then settle there. He says he would take a job at FOX if he were offered one. The people at Al-Jazeera are a far cry from the fundamentalist, extremists they are made out to be in the American media.
To adequately represent a range of analysis about the war, some reports may not be positive about the US (I know! The US can be wrong. Who knew?!). Al-Jazeera news reporters interview analysts who believe the United States wants control of Iraqi oil, Iraqi politics, and, eventually, control of the entire region. One man interviewed believes the US media “hijacked” the American people by helping to encourage high levels of fear. He felt the American government uses the color terror alerts to make Americans “always feel under siege.” Then the government connects the threat of Sadaam to that fear, creating the public support for attacking Iraq. Michael Moore makes similar comments about the government using fear to drive the right wing agenda. Some might consider this propaganda.
Most Americans probably do not fully understand America’s reasons for attacking Iraq, even American soldiers. In Al-Jazeera footage, reporters ask, in English, for their names and why they have come to Iraq. Every single solider interviewed states clearly that they are in Iraq because they “follow orders.” Not one could state why they were there. On the other hand, individuals resisting American forces, when interviewed on the street (in English by the American reporters), know exactly why they resist.
Rumsfeld says, “Al-Jazeera plays propaganda over and over and over again.” He accuses the news network of planting women and children at bomb scenes to create an unfavorable picture of the war, and also generally accuses the network of lying. On another occasion, he says the regime plants women and children in front of troops to form a human shield. The representation made by Rumsfeld and most American media outlets leads many Americans to feel like Al-Jazeera is biased towards Islamic extremists and Sadaam. In Iraq, however, resistance forces and Arab governments protest Al-Jazeera, accusing them of pandering to US policy. Both sides view Al-Jazeera as the enemy. The “us” vs. “them” model clearly will not hold up under scrutiny.
The Bush government also accuses Al-Jazeera of covering news in a very overemotional way. They say this type of coverage sensationalizes the war and incites animosity towards the US. After 9/11 in the US, American news reporters were very emotional as they covered the attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. This was normal and acceptable. The emotions characterized as “American patriotism” are seen in Iraq as “Arab nationalism.” Where American emotions are for their country, Iraqi emotions are for their entire region. This attitude lumps all Arabs together, combining different religious, cultural and ethnic groups, denying their individuality as people and separate countries. Additionally, “patriotism” is an American value that is viewed in a very positive light, but “nationalism” carries a connotation of unrest, disorder and threat.
The head of aljazeera.net questions the whole premise of journalistic objectivity. Americans do not expect reporters to be objective when they cover horrific events in their home country. How can Americans expect Iraqi reporters to maintain an impossible standard? As the aljazeera.net spokeswoman said, “Objectivity is a mirage.”
The American government chastises Al-Jazeera for airing photographs of dead American soldiers. Rumsfeld and others hold press conferences and accuse Al-Jazeera of violating the Geneva Convention and threaten to take action against them. At the same time, American news networks air footage of dead Iraqis at Basra. To American leadership, somehow, pictures of the Iraqi dead did not count. The Centcom spokesman said he was not as bothered to see pictures of the “other” dead. Some Americans do not view them as human. Their human nature and emotional sensibilities only kick in once the dead are American.
The American government believes they can easily control both Americans and Iraqis. The American government routinely controls the message of the war. On the day that American forces invaded Baghdad, exercising their promise to shock and awe and killing hundreds, CNN covered endless stories about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Americans turn on the television to see what appear to be rejoicing “liberated” Iraqis congregating on the town square to take down a massive statue of Sadaam. The media and the government want people to view America as the liberator of an oppressed people. As the liberator, they tell stories of Iraqis showering soldiers with Iraqi currency and thank yous. The “Iraqis” on the square, however, are really Kurds paid to take down the statue with the help of an American tank. The money the people threw was old money no longer in circulation. The American military conveniently bombed all the Arab news headquarters the day before the “liberation” so that the world only got the American perspective, victory instead of the surrounding death and dismemberment.
Americans are ridiculously dense to think a people may be so easily controlled, but the real problem is, they do not even seem to care about any opinion outside of the West as long as the approval ratings for the President stay respectable. CNN shows footage of a man yelling and the reporter tells us he is cheering for Bush, cheering for his liberation. But they do not speak Arabic. They do not hear he really says, “Americans are animals. They are scum.”
Control Room. Dir. Jehane Noujaim. Perf. Hassan Ibrahim, Tom Mintier. 2004.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.