Documenting Al Jazeera

In Control Room, not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

Last Friday, Al Jazeera’s English-language Web site reported that Al Jazeera reporters had come under fire in Fallujah, including a bombing raid that came “disconcertingly close to the news channel’s office.” The story went on to note that “Aljazeera journalists have found themselves at the receiving end of US-aggression often in the past.”

To be sure, members of the Bush administration have been heavily critical of the controversial Qatar-based Arab satellite news network, but it seems the operative pattern here isn’t the White House’s plan to target journalists, but Al Jazeera’s habit of claiming they’ve been targeted.

In Control Room, a documentary film about Al Jazeera that premiered last week in New York at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films festival, an Al Jazeera producer says that he’s made a point of telling the U.S. military where their reporters are going to be located in Iraq. The suggestion is that if Al Jazeera journalists are harmed—well, the U.S. armed forces knew where they were. Later in the film, an Al Jazeera journalist, Tariq Ayyoub, is killed by U.S. tank fire in Baghdad. In one subsequent scene, journalists from the world press gather in a room at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, to commemorate their fallen colleague. In another, Ayyoub is laid to rest during the course of a demonstration that looks like it could have been shot at a Hamas funeral. Ayyoub, a journalist, is referred to as a martyr.

Al Jazeera, for all its Western production values and its “fair and balanced” motto (“The opinion … and the other opinion”), recognizes that there is a difference between Western journalism and what Al Jazeera considers journalism. Control Room, directed by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, appears not to acknowledge that they are different. Rather, the film uses a Rashômon-like approach to tell the story of the war from a variety of perspectives, in order to question ideas like “objectivity.” However, leaving those questions to be asked largely by Al Jazeera journalists is a problem; sometimes they are interested in truth and objectivity, and oftentimes they are not.

As Slate’s Michael Young explained in Lebanon’s Daily Star, the station serves the various political interests, pursuits, and whims of its owner, Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Among other things, serving those interests means criticizing Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and to a lesser extent Egypt. Another satellite news network, Al Arabiya, the self-styled moderate alternative to Al Jazeera, is a majority Saudi-owned enterprise meant to counterbalance Al Jazeera’s criticism of the kingdom. The point of owning an Arab satellite station is not to make money—Al Jazeera does not—but rather to get your own message out. Hence, the U.S.-financed Al Hurra station, with a lot of kinks still to be worked out, makes some sense in the region.

Are there independent Arab journalists interested in truth and objectivity? Yes, and some of them work at Al Jazeera. However, Hassan Ibrahim, a likable Sudanese reporter who’s one of the stars of Control Room, oversells his case. In order to prove that his criticism of the United States’ war in Iraq is balanced and free from prejudice, Ibrahim makes the apparently uncontroversial observation that no one likes Saddam Hussein. Well, who could like such a villain? The problem, of course, is that many Arab journalists not only liked Saddam Hussein, they also praised him because he paid them. “Saddam got a bigger bang for the buck from journalists than from his army,” Dubai-based political analyst Massoud Derhally told me.

Indeed, a specific charge was brought last spring, when the Sunday Times of London reported that three Al Jazeera employees were paid agents of the Iraqi regime. There’s no mention of this in Control Room. Noujaim explained through her publicist that filming stopped before the filmmakers could investigate the charges, a lame excuse as the charges would seem to be relevant to a movie about the Iraq war, the media, truth, and objectivity. Moreover, there was apparently plenty of time to flush out the various conspiracy theories advanced by Al Jazeera journalists. In the film, one producer suggests that the famous scene of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians taking down the statue of Saddam Hussein was staged. Why? Among the other reasons she puts forth, she notes that there are no women on hand. If the presence of women on Arab streets were the test for veracity, that would mean that somewhere around 50 percent of all TV coverage dealing with the Arab world, never mind the war, is staged.

At the Control Room screening I attended, viewers seemed to accept these theories with equanimity, while they invariably moaned loudly every time a U.S. official appeared to be evading a question.

There will always be a certain number of Western news consumers predisposed to believe anything so long as it attributes mysterious and sinister motives to the U.S. government. The problem for the rest of us isn’t Al Jazeera or Arab-press-style conspiracy theories appearing in the Western media. Rather, the White House, with its accumulated misstatements and deceptions, has unwittingly collaborated with the enemy’s public relations wing. By playing fast and loose with the truth, the Bush administration has created an atmosphere where Al Jazeera’s paranoia and conspiracy theories almost seem legitimate.