June 17, 2004
Gullibility cuts both ways.
I try to remember this as I reflect on "Control Room," a fascinating documentary on the Arab news channel Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera broadcasts out of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to more than 40 million Arabic-speaking viewers around the world.
Its many critics in the West say the station inflames Arab anger against America and Israel by presented skewed coverage of the war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Its defenders say Al Jazeera is the first truly independent news channel in the Arab world, and its popularity is based on its accuracy and high journalistic standards.
Since I don't watch the channel and don't speak Arabic, I find it frustratingly difficult to write off Al Jazeera as a broadcaster of lies and propaganda, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld does at one point in the documentary.
Everyone was telling "Control Room" director Jahane Noujaim what to think about Al Jazeera, so the young filmmaker set out to find out for herself. Noujaim grew up shuttling between Egypt and the United States before attending Harvard University. She helped make "The War Room" and "Start-up.com," then set about doing her own documentary on something near and dear to her heart: the clash between the West and Islam.
The movie opens by following the editors and reporters of Al Jazeera during the days leading up the Iraq War. She filmed mostly at Central Command, where the U.S. military conveniently set up its headquarters just 10 miles from Al Jazeera's offices. The film's main characters are quickly and sharply drawn: Samir Khader, a knowing, perpetually exhausted senior producer; Hassan Ibrahim, a Falstaffian, Sudanese-born correspondent; and U.S. Marine Lt. Josh Rushing, a young, earnest information officer who becomes our surrogate as he tries to understand and influence the Arab journalists around him.
Early on, these men spar in almost theoretical terms over who is more misguided. "Saddam Hussein has killed more Muslims than anyone in the world," Rushing tells Ibrahim early on, accusing the network of bias "and Al Jazeera is protecting him."
Khader shoots back: "The American media were hijacked by some people within the administration to be used for their own agenda."
As the horrible reality of war plays out on Al Jazeera screens, the men grow less glib and more pained. Rushing watches Al Jazeera footage of horribly maimed Iraqi civilians and dead U.S. soldiers -- stuff never shown on any American network.
"It makes me hate war," the suddenly deflated Marine says, "but it doesn't make me believe we're in a world where you can live without it yet."
Ibrahim reacts to yet another shrill Arab protest with an exasperated sigh: "If an underground pipe breaks in the center of Doha, it will be blamed on the Israelis instead of our own incompetence."
For an 84-minute documentary about foreign-language media, this is compelling and emotional material, raising as many questions as it answers.
To help me sort them out, I sat down with Noujaim and Ibrahim while they were in Los Angeles this week promoting the movie. Ibrahim told me his English wife spent years in Jersualem and speaks fluent Hebrew. I asked Ibrahim, who said he attended grade school with Osama bin Laden, if he was raised Muslim.
"I describe myself as a Muslim Jew for Jesus," he said with a laugh.
Ibrahim may be the most palatable face of Al Jazeera, or he might be the most accurate spokesman of its ethos -- again, I don't know. But the affable journalist defended his work in almost missionary terms. Arab governments blackball companies from advertising on the station because they consider it seditious, he said. For one, almost every major Israeli official except Ariel Sharon has appeared on the news and interview programs, which irks Arab rulers. The station airs plenty of footage of Palestinian dead and wounded, but it also shows and interviews Israeli victims of Palestinian terror -- though admittedly less. It may not be perfectly balanced, but it is revolutionary in the Arab world, where the media is almost wholly government controlled.
"People ask me, 'Is it true you have a team of Israeli agents working on the third floor, telling you what to report,'" Ibrahim told me, winding up to a big laugh. "I tell them the team is actually on the fourth floor. Except that Al Jazeera is in a one-story building."
"It pisses me off," he continued. "In the Arab world we use scapegoats a lot, and Israelis are now it. But we are starting to take responsibility for our actions, and the fact is that we have a bunch of corrupt regimes that need to be removed, not just reformed."
Al Jazeera, he said, is part of the mission. For every instance where I pointed to skewed coverage of Iraq or Israel, he countered. During the Daniel Pearl tragedy, he said, the network refused to air the murderers' gruesome footage.
"He was loved by a lot of us guys," Ibrahim said. "People [at Al Jazeera] shed tears over Daniel Pearl."
I find it plausible that Al Jazeera itself embodies the contradictions at the heart of the drama of the Arab world. Its best journalists want reform and openness, a sense of belonging to the larger world, while others want to use it to further a narrow Islamist agenda
Middle East expert Jennifer Bryson, who does know of such things, wrote that, "Al Jazeera usually lives up to its own high standards for factual reporting, and it fosters important discussions within the Arab world."
"Control Room" should foster important discussion in our world as well.
"Control Room" plays for one week beginning Friday, June 18 at The Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.