As I mentioned yesterday, my friend at Magnolia Pictures sent me a copy of "The Control Room," a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim, who directed "Startup.com."
For "The Control Room," Noujaim takes her crew to Iraq at the beginning of the American invasion in 2003, where they focus primarily on Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar.
It'a an eye-opening film that does a great job at humanizing Al Jazeera, which most Americans probably regard simply as that Arab cable news network that always runs messages from Osama bin Laden and footage of dead American soldiers.
I came away with a number of impressions.
Number one, this film corrects the misperceptions one might have about the objectivity of the American media and the subjectivity of Al Jazeera. American news channels are, as it turns out, just as subjective as Al Jazeera in their coverage of the war.
Jazeera has been accused essentially of rooting for the Iraqis to prevail and the Americans to fail. First off, it's not quite that cut-and-dried. Secondly, ask yourself, would you expect an Arabic media outlet to do anything differently? Can you imagine if CBS, NBC or CNN took a position not just against the campaign in Iraq but against American victory? It's unthinkable. The shiznit would hit the fan. Sean Hannity's chin and nose would grow an inch apiece as his final transformation into demon would come to pass. He'd roam the land in search of liberal media scum, breathing fire from his mouth and bleeding venom from his eyes and, to paraphrase "Othello," turning off the mike and then turning ... off ... the ... mike.
But I digress.
Another interesting and rather timely snippet. When the Iraqis captured American soldiers in 2003, President Bush went on television and called for the prisoners to be treated humanely in accordance with the standards of the Geneva Convention, as Americans would treat Iraqi prisoners.
Oops! I guess we'd better hope American soldiers like dog collars and nightstick colonoscopies. (What is it with Americans shoving broomsticks up prisoners' asses anyway? First it was Abner Louima and now this. Why is this a kind of universal reaction? "I'm fresh out of ideas on how to torture this summabitch, McDermott. What do we do now?" "Break off a broomstick in his ass?" "Brilliant!")
And of course the pictures that have come out of American soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners do not represent the only irony with respect to the Geneva Convention. As one of Al Jazeera's more opinionated correspondents* spits at the television while watching Bush's address, the President was neatly ignoring the status of the many prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, among other things.
When Al Jazeera broadcast pictures in 2003 of dead American soldiers sprawled across the floor of a building, they were condemned by the Bush administration and military officials. And then something disturbing happened. An Al Jazeera correspondent hunkered down on a hotel rooftop was killed by American warplanes in what the American military described as a mistake.
But Noujaim's film makes a compelling case that the attack may not have been a mistake at all but rather a deliberate act of retaliation. Fighter planes struck three targets, all of which were known by the U.S. military to be sites used by Arab journalists. Moreover, it doesn't appear that the fighters did anything but attack the hotels. There was no other mission.
U.S. military officials say they were fired upon by the targets they struck, but eyewitness accounts appear to refute this assertion. Wouldn't that also be a violation of the Geneva Convention?
Republican Congressman James Imhofe's remarks the other day on the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal represented the worst of the GOP's tendency to see things in just two colors, Retard Black and Idiot White. America is good and its enemies are evil. All American soldiers are heroes, all enemy combatants hate freedom, etc.
If anything, this scandal ought to have made us realize how complex the reality on the ground in Iraq really is. Many of our soldiers are heroic, but not all of them are moral saviors sent by God. Some of them are just grunts following orders, others (like the guy caught videotaping his female subordinates in the shower) are perverts and others are plain criminals.
"The Control Room" helped demystify Al Jazeera and broadened my understanding of the situation in the Middle East. I recommend you get out there and see it.
How's this for complexity? One of the Al Jazeera producers who gets a lot of camera time, and who speaks quite intelligently on the war, admits, towards the end of the film, that he wants his children to be educated in American and wouldn't mind moving to the States to work for ... Fox News.
I have one more quick idea on this subject but I have to run. A brief addendum to follow later today.
*A righteous black Muslim with a white wife. More complexity. He's sharp guy, he's utterly cynical of American motives. But he's not irrational. He's no more cynical of Americans than right-wingers in the U.S. are of Arabs.