Control Room

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 01/18/04 13:06:50

"Proves once and for all that Al Jazeera isn’t the enemy."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: You know when someone shows you a movie or a TV show or a commercial and it throws you a particular point of view and you hear that everyone else is going along with it, so it must be good, but when you watch it something just doesn’t seem right? Countless millions of people worldwide got that feeling during the recent Iraq war, when the news networks of the US made the decision to become ‘embedded’ with the military. The Generals told us that it would give them unprecedented access to the situation on the ground, but many of us thought to ourselves, “Maybe, but what’s the point if everything they see and say is carefully vetted by the Army itself?” When we heard Donald Rumsfeld talking of how Al Jazeera was going against the Geneva Convention by showing capturd US soldiers, many of us thought, “But isn’t Guantanamo Bay against the Geneva Convention? Didn’t we do the exact same thing to the Iraqis? And wasn’t going to war against UN wishes flying in the face of world law?” The suspicion that we might in fact not be getting the full picture was a strong one, even amongst the flag-wavers, but with Control Room, a new documentary that takes you behind the scenes of Al Jazeera during these dark days of the war, it becomes all too readily apparent that our suspicions were well founded. We weren’t getting the whole story at all. Networks like Fox News are slanted in a particular direction and choose what news they’ll feed us. And here, in this film, we’re privy to a member of the US Media Liaison Unit readily admitting as much. Prepare to get cynical.

The common conception of Al Jazeera, the Arab worlds most popular news network, is that they’re anti-American. We’re told that they lie, they distort the truth. They’re selective in what they show. They’re the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden. At least, that’s the conception that we’ve been fed by those who wanted to go to war. But what’s the real deal here? It is wrong for a news network to show civilian casualties at a time of invasion? Is it wrong for them to show destroyed homes of innocent people, and babies with arms hanging off? Are those the actions of an aid to the enemy, or a legitimate news organization?

In Control Room, the answer becomes far clearer. The cameras follow the core of the Al Jazeera team from the commencement of war until the ‘official’ end of the invasion, interviewing journalists on both sides of the fence, as well as US soldiers who seem to lose their will to spin as time wears on. But perhaps the most telling footage is of the behind the scenes decision-making that goes a long way to proving that much of the criticism of the network was wrong.

Take for example an interview the network did with a Washington-based defence analyst, where the American says flat out that the US government is not concerned with liberation or weapons of mass destruction, but rather wants Iraqi oil. The interview would have, if aired, turned Americans furious that one of their own had double-crossed them. Most American news networks would have run the interview for the sheer shock value of it. But Al Jazeera’s head honcho instead asks his interview producers “Where did you get this guy? He’s not doing analysis, he’s hallucinating… This isn’t balanced. We cant’ run it. Find someone else.”

Now, would CNN have refused to run an interview with an Iraqi that said Osama Bin Laden wants every American dead? The hell they would have. Yet Al Jazeera made exactly that decision in reverse, despite the fact that their viewers would have eaten it up.

But hey, these things can be set up, right? Sure, maybe Al Jazeera planned the whole scene to make themselves look good… right?

Well I’m not so sure. Take the opinions of a certain US Media Liaison Rushing, who in the early parts of this documentary is very combative and argumentative with the Arab journalists he’s supposed to be marshalling. As time rolls on and the pictures and information of what is really happening on the ground begin to filter in to Central Command, this soldier begins to change his tune in relation to the war. He’s not about to call for air strikes against America, but he does admit things such as “Our rule back here is to not spin, but sometimes we catch ourselves doing a little spin on a story. You can’t help it.” And this gem, “Most Americans aren’t getting good information on the Israeli situation. They can’t see the connection between what’s happening here and on the West Bank.” And then there’s this beauty: “There’s no doubt Fox News slants their information in a certain direction. They choose what to show based on what their audience wants to see.”

Now, this is coming from a soldier in the US Army whose job it is to make sure the American side gets out in the Arab media. This isn’t a peace activist, and it isn’t a Frenchman and it isn’t a ‘liberal’. It’s the US Army’s own spin doctor admitting that the media is fundamentally slanted in his own country. He’s admitting that what everyone in the US government refuses to even hear.

He’s maybe a little war weary, he’s maybe a little sick and tried of trying to explain flat out lies, but he’s telling the truth in a moment of weakness and it’s the kind of admission that makes Control Room worthy of a wide release.

When you hear those words, and then see CNN correspondents talking of how the government had said before the war that “this wouldn’t be like the Gulf War, but it seems like there’s an effort to manage the news. They buried the lead… and they’re really good at it.”

The bottom line is, we – the general population – are falling victim to a shell game designed to keep us waving the flag as our leaders do things that we wouldn’t stand for normally. Is Al Jazeera perfect? Certainly not, but when you spend 90 minutes watching how they go about putting together their news, you realize that the best journalism in the gulf during the war wasn’t coming from the US, or Europe, or Guam. It was coming from within Iraq itself, from the other side, and while it was happening, we were shooting at them with tanks.

If you’re a thinking person, both this film and The Corporation will have you looking at the world from a much bleaker viewpoint. Which is a good thing… I think.

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