Lessons from “Control Room”

After watching the documentary “Control Room” I was dismayed at the complete lack of respect CentCom (and by extension the United States government in general) gave to the media with regards to the Iraq war. CentCom clearly appreciated that the media was a powerful tool that could be manipulated for propaganda purposes, but apparently failed to understand how it could also be used to reach out to the Arab community. American news networks were given the best facilities and access to information. Yet it wasn’t American support that was essential to the success of the U.S. in the Iraq war, and in the Arab region in general. What the U.S. needed was the support of the Arab public. The best way to gain that support certainly isn’t by dismissing al Jazeera, the most popular Arab news source, as nothing more than propaganda an unworthy of the U.S.’s attention.

Throughout the documentary, al Jazeera is consistently portrayed as fair-minded and open to analyzing all sides of an issue (although this likely reflects some degree of bias on the part of the producers of “Control Room” since some amount of bias is inevitable). If CentCom was willing to respect al Jazeera as a legitimate news outlet, the network could have been incredibly effective at portraying the American viewpoint. The press officer in the movie, Lt. Rushing, serves as an excellent example of the inattention and even blatant disrespect given al Jazeera in particular and the Arab media in general. Rushing was the most junior press officer at CentCom with absolutely no background in the Middle East, but was assigned to al Jazeera because he seemed to get along with some of the reporters. It seems obvious to me that more thought and strategy should have been given to attempting to influence public opinion than simply haphazardly assigning unqualified officers to the most important news network in the region.

That being said, I believe that people like Lt. Rushing are perhaps the military’s best hope of improving its image in the Middle East. Although he had no background or training in the region, Rushing displayed a genuine interest and curiosity in the Arab people, culture, and history. He was able to develop a positive rapport with the al Jazeera reporters and see them as reasonable people capable of expressing and listening to rational opinions. In turn, the reporters were able to put a human face on U.S. policy, even when they disagreed with it. Rushing’s curiosity of and respect for the region ultimately serves U.S. interests. Instead of insultingly dismissing Rushing’s suggestion to call on an al Jazeera reporter first at a press conference as a sign of respect, General Franks would have done well to listen to him. Such a simple measure would have cost Franks nothing and been a step towards developing a positive rapport. It appears the military could use more soldiers as open-minded as Lt. Rushing.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Initial Thoughts

Having never studied the Middle East before, I found a lot of the information in Lynch somewhat surprising. I’m afraid I always had the typical American perception of al-Jazeera as extremist hate media, so it was interesting to see the wide range of opinion broadcast on the different talk shows. Also interesting was the development and progression of Arab public opinion. For example, general Arab views on Saddam Hussein and American sanctions changed over time based on foreign policy developments and emerging information about mass graves and other atrocities. I think that it is often tempting to fall into the stereotype of viewing Arab public opinion as irrationally opposed to anything the West does, so Lynch’s insights as to the reasons for popular Arab views was helpful.

I’m entering this class with more of an interest in media in general than the Middle East in particular, so I’m not sure yet which geographical areas I’d like to focus on. However, I do know that I’d like to learn more about obstacles to press freedom, including outright censorship as well as more subtle means, like the intimidation of journalists.

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment