The Revolution Will Be Televised

The other POV: An Al Jazeera broadcaster delivers the (bad) news in 'Control Room'
Magnolia Pictures

One of my favorite moments in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 comes in the first few minutes: The super-size documentarian interrupts his rebroadcast of the 2000 "Florida victory" with a special bulletin from "something called the Fox News Channel" (where Dubya's cousin was reporting election results)--something to do with a massive cloud formation moving swiftly through the Sunshine State (where Dubya's brother was governing election results).

Homeland security, Moore effortlessly argues, predates September 11 by at least a year; indeed, it would seem to predate the current administration by a lot more than a few short months. But has the business of protecting one's interests ever been so big? The undeniably enormous effects of recent power consolidation appear to have compelled a number of documentary filmmakers--the first of whom merely observed the train pulling into the station, the salesmen pounding the pavement--to drop most if not all of their claims to objectivity. CNN has not lived up to its responsibilities, Moore and others are essentially saying, as if paraphrasing our chief executive producer on the eve of his ratings coup. So we will rise to ours.

In the war of news, the first casualty is the illusion that "fair and balanced" reporting can exist even in peacetime. And the enemy of the free market coalition (not to be confused with the free press) is Al Jazeera. Control Room, which shoves Super Size Me off the Uptown's screen on Friday, was known in conversation among critics at Sundance this year as the "Al Jazeera movie"--a playfully biased acknowledgement of the doc's playful bias toward a playfully (and purposefully) biased news organization. We meant it as a compliment. But my own claim that Control Room is a de facto "recruiting film" for Al Jazeera was variously interpreted--as praise in Film Comment and as scorn on Neither opinion of my opinion was impartial--and I don't mean that as inside politics, either. I just mean that not everyone in the culture war views the Fairness Doctrine as a sacred text. Leaving her own embedded position undisclosed, the critic for CNN's sibling outlet Entertainment Weekly sought to short-circuit Control Room for offering a "preferential portrait" of the Arab independent news network. Them's fightin' words for some of us--even some of us who draw our salaries from American corporations.

What makes Control Room contentious--and vitally important, too--is its insistence on extending the battlefield to include the TV news studios stationed in the Middle East. Actually, it's not that much of a stretch. The film's chilling opener, captured just prior to the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, reveals that CentCom conveniently houses the United States' major Mideast military base and its major television news outlets under the same gigantic roof. Al Jazeera may be located just 20 miles away from CentCom, but ideologically, the two are worlds apart.

"Wake up!" is the message of Al Jazeera, according to the network's senior producer Samir Khader, a cool, charismatic man in middle age who gives documentarian Jehane Noujaim some of her movie's juiciest quotes. "Rumsfeld called this incitement," says Khader of his controversial image of an Iraqi child wrapped in bloody bandages. "I call it true journalism--the only true journalism in the world." (Noujaim includes a clip of the defense secretary suggesting that Al Jazeera reporters--"people [who] are perfectly willing to lie to the world"--actually stage such atrocities for the camera. With world leaders like this, who needs fabrication?) The U.S. journalists featured in Control Room generally appear rolling out of their offices and down the hall to lap up CentCom's newsbyte details of the saving of Private Lynch and the toppling of Saddam's statue--hardly frontline reporting. One wonders what these hardworking men and women were busy doing after word came that an errant U.S. bomb had struck Al Jazeera's offices in Baghdad, killing a camera operator. (The film includes a colleague's video footage of the victim in what were literally his last moments of life.)

And the war goes on. EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum faults the "bicultural Noujaim" for the fact that Control Room's American subjects "come across as weary and exasperated" or "shallow, or cynical, or inappropriate as they're seen laughing, challenging, doubting, mocking." How odd it is--or telling--that the critic doesn't fault them. Like many a modern war correspondent, Noujaim takes what she can get. And while that doesn't include a picture of fiercely independent CNN videographers or a wide-angle perspective on the wonder that is Al Jazeera, it's more than enough to show that news, too, is hell.

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