Inside the Control Room: America at war with itself
The movie Control Room is a series of raw, off-the-cuff film vignettes, carefully woven together, which give the viewer a ringside seat inside the guts of a frenetic media operation. Or I should say two distinct media operations, the principal one being the "Coalition Media Center," the official portal for the US military's professionally managed, psychological warfare strategy with world media. The second one is the "control room" of the film's title, the headquarters for Al Jazeera satellite TV network, the Arab world's largest, most popular, and most freewheeling cable news information channel, which has rapidly become the Arab answer to CNN.
Ironically, these two almost diametrically opposed "control rooms," the first, the nerve center for a vast technological army's bid for world media control, and the second, the most contentious and intellectually lively media operation in the Arab world, are located physically in the same city of Doha, Qatar, 20 miles from each other. And while their goals seem to be diametrically opposed, they maintain, for the most part, an uneasy yet peaceful coexistence, at least on this terrain. For the most part, but not entirely, of course. Because as most of us probably know, the US military has now targetted Al Jazeera's offices and personnel in the field in several places directly with lethal military force on multiple occasions under highly suspicious circumstances. The most infamous such attack occurred right in Baghdad in the midst of the recent US war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and is extensively dealt with in the film.
From the standpoint of an American citizen, the most fascinating thing about the film is likely to be the view from the eyes of thoughtful and experienced Arab journalists of the US role in the world. And for those of us nowadays despairing of any hope in the salvageability of the US democratic experiment, it is likely to come as quite a remarkable jolt to hear the unabashed admiration of these same journalists for that experiment. Correspondent Hassan Ibrahim, formerly with the BBC, states unequivocally, "I have absolute faith in the US Constitution. It will be the public in the United States which will defeat [US military adventurism]." Samir Khader, station manager, wryly says, "Despite it all, if I were offered a job at Fox, I'd take it." He is kidding, of course, but not entirely. He explains, "I still have this American dream myself. When my kids are old enough, I will send them to American universities. And they will stay in America."
Of course, the lovefest with American idealism does not extend to the US military or the current cartoonishly belligerent US regime. The journalists offer many reflections on the unbridled arrogance and strange mix of technological and media savvy combined with cultural and intellectual ineptitude that characterizes the current US imperialist project. The journalists carefully note that the media spectacle of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in Baghdad's Firdos Square was a master PR stroke from the standpoint of domestic media manipulation on the American side, but clownishly unbelievable to Arabs. The crowds in the square don't speak with Iraqi accents! One of the celebrants in the crowd pulls out an outdated, pre-1990s version of the Iraqi flag! etc.
Control Room ironically reveals an America at war with itself. On the one hand, there is the America of Constitutional rights and democratic idealism and honest intellectual debate. On the other, there is the arrogant, imperialist America, that hopes to control and dominate the discussion, tolerating only those debates scripted in advance to portray itself in a favorable light on the world stage. We hear the conflict in the inner tension in the voice of the young American military spokesman who is repeatedly interviewed in the film. It is almost painful to hear him struggling with his obvious commitment to his job, to skillfully spin every wayward fact in the most favorable media light, and the professed goals of the military operation which he is there to defend on the psychological warfare front. But these professed goals can't be reconciled with reality, and at one point, the soldier makes his first honest admission of the entire film, acknowledging that he has not been as emotionally moved by witnessing media images of death and carnage among Iraqi civilians as by comparable images of wounded American soldiers. The earnest, fresh faced young man does a diligent and disciplined job of PR and media manipulation, but ultimately he can't hide the truth, even from himself.
The same conflict also reveals itself in the hearts and minds of US corporate media. At one point, a clip is shown from an interview by a US media outlet with a US-based spokeswoman for Al Jazeera. The interviewer asks her if Al Jazeera is capable of being "objective" and thereby fulfilling its responsibilities as a journalistic institution. The spokeswoman turns the question around by challenging the American journalists to answer the same question: can they honestly say they have been "objective" in their coverage of the war, or the reasons used by the American government to justify it? We see Tom Mintier of CNN lambaste the US military-orchestrated, flimsy, manipulative Jessica Lynch sideshow, while the most crucial days of the war are unfolding without any substantive information forthcoming from them. Yet, moments later, we see an American reporter literally patting a US military spokesman on the back, lauding him and his colleagues for their "noble," "heroic" work.
One of the most amusing parts of the film comes when Samir Khader is shown upbraiding a subordinate for scheduling an American antiwar activist to give an "analysis" of the US military's goals in the war. "That is not an analysis, that is propaganda! It is hallucinations!" he yells. The man sheepishly retorts, "But he is speaking about his own country!" Ibrahim sternly upbraids him, "That is not how it is done, my friend. Not on the news! If he wants to present his opinions in a commentary piece, fine. But don't call it analysis. We need to present the public with all sides of the issues." Ironically, it is hard to even imagine this sort of exchange between Fox News employees, or even the more supposedly "neutral" CNN journalists.
Samir Khader explains in the beginning of the film the mission of Al Jazeera, as he sees it. It must "shake up" an Arab world that is asleep, to challenge it. It must bring the light of democracy and honest intellectual debate to the stifling, politically repressed societies of the Middle East. It is, ironically, a mission that seems to incarnate the very values that the US government claims to bear the mantle of. It is interesting to hear the words of State Department spokeman Nabil Khoury, who acknowledges a grudging respect for Al Jazeera. He says that, while the network has been highly critical of the US, it has also been quite open to US officials to present the American side. Consequently, because of its high prestige and viewership in the Arab world, he says, the State Department has considered it important to engage Al Jazeera respectfully and constructively.
Khoury's remarks contrast humorously with the agitated, flailing attacks against the network by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which are also interspersed at various points in the film. In one scene in the film which evoked extended laughter from the theater audiene, Rumsfeld insists that "people who lie repeatedly in the media, sooner or later, will be discredited."
While the journalists of Al Jazeera in some ways seem to embody professed American ideals, they also sympathize as Arabs with the frustration and sense of humiliation of the Arab peoples at seeing a fellow Arab and Moslem country become the playtoy of American military adventurism. Of course, none of them can sympathize with Saddam Hussein personally or politically. And yet, one American journalist upbraids them for "rooting" for the Iraqi military, exciting unrealistic hopes in the Arab masses, and referring to "heroic resistance" by Iraq. Yet it is an irony that, rather than discrediting them, makes them seem more believable, more human.
Ibrahim himself professes astonishment early in the film at how US belligerence has made intellectuals who formerly loathed Saddam as the embodiment of evil now suddenly hail him as a hero. One woman journalist in the TV newsroom, while watching the images of the famous statue toppling, talks about the sense of shock and pain she and her colleagues share. "We've lost so much. I still can't get over [the death of] Tarek [Ayoub] (the Al Jazeera journalist killed in a US missile strike on the network's Baghdad offices at the end of the war). And now we've lost Baghdad. How much more will we lose?"
Any American who is curious about the view of the world as seen through the eyes of sharp and critical minds from "the other side" should see this film. It is a rare treat, and one which may help to renew the vigor of one's own hope for a more fraternal, pluralistic, and democratic world. With films like this, it seems realistic to believe that we are in a unique age, full of potential for the evolution of human consciousness. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to see the world through the lens of our "enemies," or at least those our leaders would have us see as enemies. Perhaps this will be our salvation.
It remains to be seen whether Ibrahim's optimism about American Constitutional democracy is justified. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera continues pioneering a muckraking style certain to discomfit the powerful on all sides.