In today’s media, the concept of truth is a fluid and malleable construct. Because of physical constraints that tie us to our own communities, we, the audience, rely on our faith in journalism to expose us to the world beyond our direct networks through our television and computer screens. The problem arises when too much trust is put on the factual authenticity of the information that we are fed, as giant news conglomerates are all too content and happy to manipulate an audience’s ignorance to project their sponsored perspectives and ideals. Award winning filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room” positions itself as a magnifying glass, scrutinizing this contradictory crisis arising out of modern day media production, particularly Western media. Grabbing the audience by their hand, the film leads the viewer down the grim rabbit hole of a war journalism frenzy, ignited by the events of the Iraq war. Positioned on the side of Qatari broadcaster, Al Jazeera, we become aware of their struggle to provide a balancing counter-narrative to the suggested military manipulation of mainstream news output that was being broadcasted internationally.
As the movie commences, the contrast between Al Jazeera and Western media amplifies. Like two children in a playground fight, the audience is caught in the middle as the East and West media wage war against each other using the actual war between the East and West as their catalyst. While Western media focuses on their perspective of championing over an assumed evil to save democracy, Al Jazeera emerges with a competing reality, showing the impacts of the war without censorship. To do this, they begin broadcasting dead children, bombed communities and captured American prisoners of war. As expected, the Bush administration was appalled, declaring the arab news network as terrorist propaganda – “Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece.” “Truth ultimately finds its way to people’s eyes and ears and hearts,” Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declares triumphantly at a press conference as he ironically denounces the validity of “truth” presented by Al Jazeera. This iconic representation of American politics threatened by opposing media becomes a major criticism of the film, as well as an argument supporting Al Jazeera’s stance of playing the role as a counter-narrative.
Despite the apparent sensationalized manipulation of the American political influence on Western media, the issue begins to present itself not as a struggle about finding an actual truth but rather the personal dilemma of navigating through the journalistic code of conduct and one’s own political allegiances. The most drastic example of this in the film is when military media liaison, Joshua Rushing comes to head with his own biases. Although skeptical of Bush’s administration himself, Rushing is portrayed in the early onset of the film as the main supporter of Western media but slowly transforms into a neutral and confused character (much like the role the audience itself is forced to play), as his questioning of his own beliefs puts him in-between the West and East propaganda. Initially disgusted with Al Jazeera’s broadcast of dead American soldiers, Rushing realizes the contradictory nature of his emotions. The night prior to that broadcast of dead POWs, Al Jazeera had broadcasted the dead images of Iraqis of which Rushing felt was “equally if not more horrifying” but less detrimental to him. “I just saw people on the other side,” he explains, “and those people in the Al Jazeera offices must have felt the way I was feeling [about the dead American POWs] that night, and it upset me on a profound level that I wasn’t bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war” (Noujaim 2004). It is a natural impulse to feel sympathy for your own community or associated group and because of this, the responsibility of journalists to show objectivity is more important than ever.
The integrity of journalism, as senior lecturer from the University of Sheffield, Tony Harcup would explain, needs to serve as a public service of dissemination and analysis of information, balancing truth, accuracy and factual knowledge (2009). Ideally, journalism would act as merely another vehicle to transmit information as a fair and accurate depiction of events, allowing the intended subscriber to conceptualized their own reasoning. As an ideology, this seems to celebrate and protect the idea of what we believe to be ‘truths’, but in reality, our media environment couldn’t be further from the mark. Adel Iskandar and Mohammed cl~Nawawy expand more, explaining that “contextual objectivity” needs to be the “the adoption of a position of detachment, rather than neutrality, toward the subject of reporting” (Allan 2004). They claim that Al Jazeera did just that by realizing their own limitation and constraints with bias and attempting to counteract them by indulging in a wide range of educated and diverse discussion (2004). This can be seen by the station’s practice of interviewing the enemy, by not only showcasing their own perspective but also finding educated opposing stances, and by showing the gruesome reality of both sides during war.
In the first few minutes, the film immediately gives the audience a taste of what they are in for and begins to juxtapose arab civilian life against the sensationalized Western media clips of presidential addresses. It is March 2003 and the potential war between America and Iraq is hitting a climax. In the opening scenes, the audience is removed from the the physical constraints of their own environment, as mentioned prior, and is submerged as a voyeuristic member alongside native Iraq and Arabic civilians as everyday activities are carried out. Before the main storyline evens begins to develop, the viewer is already presented with a counter-narrative, a chance to rebel against their own biased perspective accumulated through their own experiences of watching the events of the war unfold. As citizens from the Western world, our single first person perspective of watching the presidential address declaring war, all the while safe and cozy in our living rooms, is shattered as we are now “behind enemy lines,” with the coffee shop patrons at a Baghdad, watching in disbelief as we are told about the impending bombs that will soon drop over our heads. There is no dramatic music or camera angles to enhance the mood – and perhaps because of this, this particular scene is effective in establishing the escalation of anxiety as the key hole view that we have of the environment feels all too real. Through this counter-narrative contrasting our own narrative, Noujaim has successfully broken down our subconscious predispositions, opening up our ability to move beyond ourselves to understand the film’s overall thesis- Al Jazeera’s need to provide a counter-narrative to Western media’s narrative.
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- Allan, Stuart & Barbie Zelizer (eds). (2004). Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. New York:Routledge
- Control Room. Dir. Jehane Noujaim. Prod. Jehane Noujaim, Rosadel Varela, and Hani Salama. By Jehane Noujaim and Julia Bacha. Magnolia Pictures, 2004. DVD.
- Harcup, Tony (2009), Journalism: Principles and Practice, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage