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Not Your Father's Fox News: Al Jazeera correspondent Hassan Ibrahim gives a different spin on the news from Baghdad in 'Control Room.'

War of the Words

'Control Room' goes behind the scenes as Al Jazeera covers the Iraq war

By Richard von Busack

ONE TELLING moment in the damning documentary Control Room features an interview with Joanne Tucker, who's responsible for the Aljazeera.net website. She's being interviewed by unidentified reporters about Al Jazeera's lack of neutrality, and she replies, "This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage. ... If there were true neutrality, there would be a welcoming of info from all sides."

Truth is the first casualty of war, goes the oft-quoted, little-heeded proverb. The double-meaning title of Jehane Noujaim's documentary refers to the Coalition Media Center's office in Doha, Qatar, 700 miles from Baghdad. In this small warehouse, a very nice, handsome and caring military liaison named Lt. Josh Rushing helped Fox, NBC, CBS, CNN and others to as much information as the military felt it was safe to give them.

Control Room evinces a certain nostalgic quality for the phase of the war where the press was "controlled." Noujim's documentary begins on the eve of the shock-and-awe bombardment. It ends with President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. As a postscript, the film presents a troubling omen: a freak unseasonable rainstorm that soaks the press and their cameras.

Since then, we've had the Abu Ghraib story. The cat has got out of the bag, though the commentators have tried to spin that, too: the cat was a Saddam loyalist, the bag could have been worse, the cat was culturally accustomed to bags ...

Amid the sort of fawning coverage that The New York Times ended up having to apologize for, the satellite-TV network Al Jazeera made itself invaluable. Though it was small, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld thundered against it too many times to quote. And Bush took time out to denounce Al Jazeera as "the mouthpiece of Osama."

At the Coalition Media Center, the reporters dutifully covered the Jessica Lynch story and the deck of most-wanted cards. A comic moment shows the press, fluffed up like angry turkeys, trying to wheedle a deck; at the time of the cards' debut, they were flashed from the podium by an officer and then withdrawn.

You don't know whether to laugh or cry when Lt. Rushing talks to the Marlon Brando-sized Al Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim. Rushing explains to Ibrahim that the United States hadn't stinted on the cost of bombs, that the surgical accuracy of our expensive new ordinance—which cost triple the amount of ordinary bombs—was a great improvement over the messier carpet-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. The implicit message is "We could have just smashed Baghdad if we wanted to." Meanwhile, Al Jazeera was in Iraq showing its 40 million viewers the carnage behind the rhetoric: the bloody children, the anger and the rubble.

A friend who's making a nonfiction film says he's been advised that the really successful documentary needs a hero and a villain. There is a kind of anti-hero here, the jittery Al Jazeera senior producer Sameer Khader, who seems to be a Middle Eastern cousin of Kevin Spacey. Khader is a chain-smoker who sucks them down to the filter. He has a conspiracy theory that the United States brought in its own non-Iraqi throng to attend the photo opportunity of the Saddam statue demolition.

Still, the producer says he'd love to "trade this Arab nightmare for the American dream" and adds that he plans to send his children to the United States to school. It's embittering, a little, to realize that what the "American dream" means in this context is peace and plenty, as opposed to the sacrifice and liberating mission that lured so many soldiers into this war. By his lights, Khader has already worked for truth and enlightenment. He hopes Al Jazeera exposes Arabs to "education, openness and free debate." Khader says that the job he'd like is with Fox News—that would shake someone out of any illusions about truth, pronto.

Sometimes Noujaim's own slant on the war is obvious, contrasting Baghdad devastation with unedited feed of Bush arriving in a helicopter, with his frolicking doggies at his feet. Ibrahim sings a derisive version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" while watching the news of war. That's about the only serious anti-American moment, except from the blurted-out fury of people who've been maimed or lost relatives. Al Jazeera itself had a casualty of war when Tarek Ayyoub was killed by one of our expensive, technically accurate bombs.

Someday peace will come to Iraq. After that, a problem fitting for Al Jazeera's attention is how the strife in Palestine has been exploited by the area's regimes, as a method to distract the downtrodden Arabs from their own problems. Ibrahim comments that every time a water pipe breaks in the center of Damascus, it's supposed to be an Israeli plot. Contrast that obsession with Rushing's own admission that the average American doesn't understand how the Arab world would see the Iraq conflict as part of the United States' support of Israel.

Discussing these and other matters, Ibrahim refers to the problem with "Americans" and, catching himself, adds, "American foreign policy." It's good for our nation's sake that there's somebody left in the Arab world who can tell the difference.

Control Room (Unrated; 84 min.), a film by Jehane Noujaim, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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