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Is objectivity a myth?

Jehane Noujaim's documentary, 'Control Room,' says yes; film plays the Gold Town Nickelodeon

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

At their headquarters in Doha, Qatar, the television network that Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawai recently criticized for "inciting hatred and problems and racial tensions," looks like any media outlet in the world.

Earnest young professionals in their 20s and 30s scurry about ambitiously, asking questions and nodding solemnly to the rhythm of some deep-seated, internal journalistic credo. The old-horse newsman, the veteran of many conflicts, keeps his distance, shielded by profound skepticism. A supervisor with a comb-over smokes cigarettes as if he is a star. An intern answers the phone as if she is very hungry.

This is the newsroom at the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera, as filmed for Jehane Noujaim's documentary "Control Room" during the first few days of the current war in Iraq.

Since it was founded in 1996 by the emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera has expanded to an audience of more than 40 million Arabic viewers. It's one of the few media outlets in the Arab-speaking world that isn't hand-fed or controlled by the state government, and it has seemingly won the trust of dissidents, radicals and terrorist organizations. It often obtains video from al-Qaida itself.

For all these reasons, the station has been denounced by the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece." Twelve days ago, Allawai shut down the network's Baghdad bureau.

Noujaim, a Harvard-educated Egyptian-American, shows us Al Jazeera behind the scenes. There are no frills and few quick cuts. It looks like journalism everywhere: waiting, button-pushing and more waiting. There are no masked commandos fomenting revolution, just bad backs and poor coffee, then more waiting.

Physically if not politically, the film shows us that Al Jazeera is no different from FOX, NBC or the Washington Post. The network is trapped at Central Command, trying to filter the truth out of propaganda, spun ridiculously by Central Command. This is a natural element of military conflict, a producer says, for there is no war without propaganda.

There is also no story without the perception of spin, another says, for true objectivity is impossible in the middle of global upheaval.

An Al Jazeera employee whose job it is to translate English into Arabic shoos his sources off a monitor, then calls his family to see if they have survived the latest bombing. A CentCom press officer feels ill at images of dead Americans, then remembers eating dinner shortly after viewing pictures of dead Iraqis. Both characters are human, reacting naturally to their world views.

One of the best scenes is near the end. The staff at Al Jazeera are dumbfounded that U.S. tanks have entered Baghdad. Where is the Republican Guard? But their skepticism is soon restored. The teenagers knocking down a statue of Saddam are foreigners. They do not have Iraqi accents, and they are carrying a 13-year-old flag. No other station seems to be reporting this.

"Control Room" is slow-moving at times but interesting for its look at the modern media.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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