Control Room... amazing documentary

posted by Jeff | Friday, August 20, 2010, 11:08 PM | comments: 0

Several years ago, before Netflix did streaming, I got Control Room and never watched it. I got busy or something, had it for ages, and finally just ripped it and sent it back. It was directed by the same woman who did Startup.com, which I also loved (and the subject matter was near and dear to my heart, for obvious reasons). This one documents how the war in Iraq was covered in the first year or so, mostly from the perspective of how al Jazeera did it, but with quite a few bits from some of the American and UK media as well.

The politics of the war are certainly a backdrop for the doc (and it's no secret that I think we should have never started it), but the real themes of the film center more around the bigger issues: What is objectivity? What is truth? What are the standards that journalists must uphold?

For al Jazeera, these are fascinating things to think about. While Bush and his morons would ramble about how nothing they did was true, the Iraqi press minister simultaneously accused the agency of being a voice for the US military. The film points out that here you have people trying to conduct real journalism in a part of the world where some states are ruled by dictators or oil billionaires. There was one point at which a US press officer talks about how angered he is by their decision to show dead US soldiers, but how he didn't think much of it when they would show dead Iraqis, and it bothered him. Indeed, it was ugly on all sides, and you never saw that from US media. (Which is why, to this day, I still put their English feed in my RSS reader, as it's the only true "world" news in terms of its breadth).

Now if in 2003 you were keeping up with al Jazeera, and reading something like the now famous "Salem Pax" blog, it would probably not come as a huge surprise to hear that things were much worse, and far more ugly than any US media would lead you to believe. The realization I never had at the time is how horribly the US media was played by its own government. It's just generally embarrassing to the profession of journalism really. While no one sold out like Fox did, I really feel like most US media didn't think we could handle the very bloody truth.

There were absolutely some bright spots though. The guy from CNN was pretty critical of the military from the start (and that was when CNN really mattered). When the US "accidentally" killed an al Jazeera reporter, and I remember this shift vividly, however brief it was, there was a very sudden level of criticism in the news business that wasn't previously obvious. The staging of people tearing down the statue of Saddam was not something I ever considered either.

I think the film is more relevant today than it was in 2004, because it was filmed when journalism truly started to take a turn for the worse, and we can see that more than ever today. It's the uniquely American duty of the press to question everything its government does, but it simply hasn't. Fox News (when will some enterprising lawyer sue them for calling it "news" as false advertising?) is certainly the worst of the bunch, to the extent that they not only avoid questioning the government (unless by "government" you mean the black guy in the White House with a funny name), but starting in 2003 they were flat out endorsing it with a constant flag waving on screen. Literally. The other networks, and to a lesser degree the big newspapers, have also been reluctant to question anything too strongly in the fear that it would be unpopular and they'd shed audience. That's where I wish they were more like al Jazeera. That they might enrage much of the Arab world with the truth, and be saddened by it (as several people in the movie are), they accept that reporting reality may in fact piss off governments and their people.

Like I said, it's fascinating stuff.


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