The public relies on the media to keep them in touch with world affairs and to expose the nasty little secrets that would normally elude us: Watergate, Love Canal, the Iran/Contra scandal to name a few. We need to believe that that a free press thrives today, but recent events point to the contrary: more than one controversial story has been killed because it threatened some corporation’s bottom line – the events revealed in “The Insider” are arguably commonplace today. Now imagine that it’s not simply a corporation, but a government that’s putting pressure on reporters to tow the party line. Who can we count on then?
Based in Qatar, Al Jazeera, emerged as the first independent Arab news station in 1996 and quickly set about reporting all the news that was fit to print, including the seamy side of neighbouring governments. This quickly won it the enmity of several regimes in the regrion : Al Jazeera’s reporters have been expelled from Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, and the Palestinian Authority for exposing abuses by said governments. Ironically, before it became lionized as the “Mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden” by the Bush Whitehouse, the station was regularly praised by the world’s media (including the U.S.) as the only neutral Arab media source. In 2003, when war in Iraq seemed inevitable, Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian- American filmmaker shadowed Al Jazeera’s reporters and producers from the follow-up of the invasion to the fall of Baghdad.
The crew join the media scrum at Centcom (Coalition Media Center at Central Command) where the U.S. Military provides information on the ongoing war aka Operation Iraqi Freedom. Through interviews with journalists from Fox, NBC, and CNN it is readily apparent that Al-Jazeera’s staff, most of whom cut their teeth as BBC correspondents, are well respected. They are also admired for their tenacity in not shying away from the tough questions and for having the best food on the base. The same can’t be said of the US military.
The use of embedded reporters has allowed Centcom to shape the news that is being seen i.e. the media is forced to sit through an entire patriotism swaddled briefing which plays up the heroic efforts of Jessica Lynch. As CNN’s head correspondent notes of the day’s events “ There’s an effort to manage the news…they buried the news and they’re pretty good at it”. Attempts to learn of military progress are repeatedly stymied and deflected with vague comments of “We don’t want to give our position to the enemy.” When asked to comment on the presentation of the war, Lieutenant Rushing, the Press Officer at Centcom is candid “I always tell myself ‘Don’t spin!’ But I catch myself doing it.”
Whilst the majority of media outlets present a largely sanitized view of the war, Al Jazeera is not afraid to expose the human toll which includes showing both American and Iraqi POW’s and casualties. While many find it shocking, or reprehensible, the images put a face to what is going on. As Lieutenant Rushing notes, it’s not the fact that Al Jazeera shows dead people that disturbs him, it’s that he is not moved by the images of the dead Iraqis.
While there may be a Arab nationalist sentiment to some of the reporting, Al Jazeera strives to maintain balance, as evidenced by their guests: in the past Condoleeza Rice, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld have been interviewed by the network. Soon after the newest operation in Iraq began, Al Jazeera spoke with the head of the U.S. State Dept. In one scene, which may or may not have been staged, the producer cuts short an interview with a conspiracy theory spouting American activist and berates the staffer that booked the guest. Any assumed anti-American sentiments are quickly dashed by the producer’s stated intent to send his children to school in the U.S. and his confession that “If I’m offered a job by Fox, I’ll take it.”
Donald Rumsfeld was prescient when he said that “ [It] doesn’t take people long to be caught lying and lose their credibility.” Jehane Noujaim's sombre documentary calls the entire notion of a free press into question without resorting to Michael Moore-style name calling. Until the media refuses to accept force fed scripted ‘news’, we will have to rely on the Al Jazeeras, blemishes and all, to dig for the answers. And much like their predecessors, these nonconformists will continue to risk censure and far worse (the last 10 minutes is both startling and outrageous).