- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

“Let me tell you a secret: The American military treats Al Jazeera like VIPs.”

That’s journalist Hassan Ibrahim talking from a Los Angeles hotel. Mr. Ibrahim, a Sudanese Englishman, works for Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news network.

A roly-poly man, fluent in English, Mr. Ibrahim is a good-natured thorn in the side of an Army press officer in Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room,” a documentary opening today about the Arab TV network’s controversial coverage of the Iraq war.

VIP treatment aside, officially, the United States doesn’t think highly of Al Jazeera (the name means “the island” in Arabic). The Qatar-based network is like a troublemaking in-law: ignorable were it not for our new marriage to the region.

It broadcasts often grisly war reporting to 23 Arab countries. During the Iraq campaign last year, viewership reached 40 million.

That’s 40 million “hearts and minds,” which explains why U.S. officials are so miffed about its content.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is a regular in “Control Room’s” back-and-forth volley of archival footage, denouncing Al Jazeera’s anti-American bias and exaggeration of civilian casualties in Iraq.

This past April, Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman, had this to say about the network: “We have very deep concerns about Al Jazeera’s broadcasts, because again and again we find inaccurate, false, wrong reports that we think are designed to be inflammatory. …”

Mr. Boucher’s boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, criticized the network for being “politically motivated,” and Mr. Powell’s boss, President Bush, snubbed the network when he apologized on Arab TV for the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

It’s not immediately clear where Miss Noujaim (Startup.com), an apprentice to husband-and-wife filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, wants to nudge the debate in “Control Room.”

On one hand, she never mentions that Al Jazeera is funded directly by the Qatari monarchy. On the other, she doesn’t hesitate to expose the network’s sometimes embarrassing amateurishness, at least at lower levels.

Miss Noujaim’s sympathies seem to lie not necessarily with one side over another but rather with the individual personalities who dot the film’s narrative.

As a good storyteller — and one with access to both Al Jazeera’s headquarters and the U.S. military’s Central Command installation, 20 miles apart in Doha, Qatar — she’s drawn instinctually to ambivalence.

Mr. Ibrahim, who describes himself to me as a “liberal-secular pacifist,” opposed the intervention in Iraq but professes in the movie to believe deeply in the U.S. Constitution.

The chain-smoking Samir Khader, an Al Jazeera senior producer, was no fan of the war, either, but admits that if possible, he would send his children to American universities.

Lt. John Rushing, a press officer at CentCom, has the movie’s most exquisite moment of self-questioning. He reveals how he was upset by his own lack of feeling for reports of Iraqi civilian deaths, as compared to the rage he felt at seeing footage of American POWs.

The documentary suggests there’s a watery line between cheerleading for the war and opposing it; both sides are guilty of bias. Absolute, metaphysical objectivity is perhaps a mirage, and the victors write the history.

Miss Noujaim tracks the mood in an Al Jazeera newsroom as U.S. forces raced toward Baghdad in April 2003. The chatter, betraying an almost comic skepticism, went something like this: “They’re not in Baghdad yet … OK, they’ve reached the southern tip of the city … OK, those are American tanks in the heart of the city.

“Hey. Where did the Republican Guard go?”

Al Jazeera journalists are so corrosively suspicious of Americans that they insist, during that famous dismantling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad city square, that those Iraqis weren’t really Iraqis; they were foreigners shipped in for a dog-and-pony show.

For his part, Mr. Ibrahim says that if you were to talk to an Al Jazeera employee on a coffee break, he might very well cop to feeling pan-Arab pride — a pride wounded by a weakly opposed foreign invasion — but “editorially, we show both sides of the coin.”

“We give equal time to [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and [Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat,” he says.

His impression of American TV war coverage, from CNN to Fox News Channel, is of bald boosterism.

I share my own recollections of panicky American journalists speaking of a “quagmire” a mere four days into the war, and pouncing on any hint of failure.

We watched the same networks.

Is one of us wrong, or are we both locked in our little postmodern cupboards, where “perspective” is king?

Ironically, the existence of a relatively free media outlet such as Al Jazeera, which broadcasts in a country that’s friendly to America, is exactly what U.S. policymakers want for the rest of the Middle East.

If the Iraq war succeeds in reorienting the region toward the liberal-democratic model of Western governments, it’s possible more Al Jazeeras will crop up.

“The Middle East will need to search for its own democratic models,” Mr. Ibrahim says. “We need to resolve our inner conflicts.”

Inner conflict: hating Saddam and, at the same time, resenting his removal.

“Control Room’s” big lesson is this: Winning hearts and minds is two separate jobs.

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