Adding Fairness and Balance to the US Media's portayal of the 'War on Terror'
By Brad Friedman on 6/19/2004, 1:14pm PT  

At one point in the remarkable new documentary Control Room (view the trailer), 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 the media.

"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 propoganda 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 Rightwing Fox News Channel).

Just one of the several extremely compelling characters who's 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 (depended on ones 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 phenomon 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 startup companies).

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 it's people --- if not the current Administration and policies thereof --- says early on 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 work.

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 traitors".

To his credit, at least, he took the time to come out, and bothered to watch the entire film. (More than can be said for Bill O'Reilly in regards to Moore's 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 later.