‘Tis the season for war documentaries
, methinks. It might be my recent viewing of late, it might be Fisk’s Pity the Nation
(review to come: it’s an immense work demanding complete attention), it might be the general mood of things. After the war push, the case-building and UN-skirting, the blatant lies and most blatant rhetoric and spin, after the battles were meant to be ended, the media criticism and analysis of what actually happened sets in. Propaganda cannot be analysed in the actual it seems, one needs the benefit of at least a little water under the bridge before one can plumb its depraved depths.
So, first cab: The Control Room
. Jehane Noujaim’s brilliant, casual look behind the scenes at Al Jazeera during the latest Gulf War. A sympathetic and broad look at the people involved, at the corporate subtlety of the media massagers at CentCom, at the rage and arrogance of media spin and Rumsfeld’s insanely incorrect baiting, at the need to show images of the dying and dead of both sides, of the difficulty of the ‘fair & balanced’ approach, about maintaining objectivity in a hopelessly charged situation (and how, as Fisk says, the strict bipartisan approach often muddies the urgent need to spell out the truth in strong language). A look at the emergence of Arab nationalism not as a political tack but as an emerging media consciousness, more like a global player (which it is). This film is an antidote to the baited view of Arabs one inherits from Western media — these people (the supposed propagandists for terrorism) are humane, humorous despite trauma and insurrection and invasion, they are proud and above all they are sensitive. They are more attuned to the reality of media representation and balance than any other media entity I can think of. And of how the American Admin is perversely pushing everything the wrong way in the Mid East. And for what end. One of the more memorable opinions came from a translator who said that from now on you won’t hear those people who talk quietly, gently like him; instead you’ll only hear the loud extremists and their declamations. The thrust of the film runs on interviews with journos and executives, and most relevantly, it runs on journalist’s off-camera analysis and reactions as they happen, so there’s the CNN talking head and a host of others deploring the way CentCom leads them with premeditated and circumscribed news (like the Deck of Cards issue). Their frustration is contrasted with the slick, clean and dumbed-down version as they file their dispatch via satellite. But the film ultimately compounds the cynicism engendered by the US administration and its media machine. It’s their (the Admin's) abuse of the media that makes the world so much more unsafer, not just for Arabs per sé. The film doesn’t leave much hope. Like one executive said, he’s going to send his children to the best schools in the States so they can hopefully affect that system from within.
Second: Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism
. (see IMDb
. I’m deliberately filing this one under war docos
because the Fox network is a direct arm of the Republican administration, and since Bush is a ‘war President’ and Rupert supports all wars... well, ‘nuff said. Subject-wise, this is far more frightening material. A right-wing Conservative nightmare. Violently partial news. Shameless leading and abuse of dialogue. Abuse of every guest. Cronyism, arse-kissing the Republican cause, dishonourable in every sense. Exploitive, biased in the extreme, insulting, crass and glib. And above all, as Fox continually reminds its viewers, ‘Fair & Balanced’. It’s amazing how far Rupert can push the gap between lowest common denominator journalism (or fear-mongering) and legal/representative accountability. And continually get away with it. This channel should be sued on a daily basis for so unfairly representing and maligning people. Yet he claims a balance of left and right-wing commentators (although heavily outnumbered), he claims this is cap J journalism, whilst lowering the standard for everyone, lowering the quality other media aspire to, lowering the methods and commercial propriety of all other channels. Obviously there’s a compliant, top-down climate of non-accountability which allows him to function this way and acquire more media. It’s a tide of cynical hatred, is Fox, shamelessly milking people’s base need for obvious opponents and righteous heroes and shameless feel-good self-congratulation because we’re all voting Bush, aren’t we. Shameless put-downs and cut-offs (“Shut up! Just shut up!”), as though protecting the idiot public from hearing opinions which might make them think and ponder or stray from the Bush flock. Sick, sick, sick. The body of film commentaries come mostly from ex-Fox staffers who lay bare the channel’s methods and coercions. Even the octogenarian Walter Cronkite gets a word in. Media analysts (with a look of near-surprise at how easy it is to debunk Fox) roll out the statistics and angles. But maybe the real star are the little executive memos telling all key Fox staff the day’s angle. In this age of leading media, these little notes read like stage-management cues from a Stalin hiding in the wings of the theatre, directing the action as the show trial proceeds. They so obviously come direct from Rupert’s Room as it coordinates the media’s war-effort along Republican lines; you can see the stupidity trail extending from the journalists (who are clearly lead) on down to the viewing public. A trail which directly supports the Bush Junta, which in fact called Bush’s illegitimate victory. ‘Keeping them stupid’ should be the motto. Here’s more sports. Watch my swing. The only negative quality of the film is that it’s just as rapid fire and quick-cut as Fox news at times — an unavoidable consequence considering the raw footage. But as an example of simple grass-roots media critique, it’s an essential picture of our times. This and the Control Room
will, in future media studies courses, form the set-reading backbone in understanding the state of our media and the forces that control it. I was tempted to draw parallels with Manufacturing Consent
, but they are already so obvious and clear-cut (the parallels) that I’d instead point to the necessity of restrictive media ownership laws (vis. the Clear Channel effect), because this film offers direct proof of the negative side of limited content sourcing/consolidation and control. And also, bless the Internet: I got this DVD on a whim — I got the word from a trusted site (thismodernworld.com), entered my data at the main site and within I think about five working days had the film in the mail. So that I could spread the word.
The big conclusion of these doco’s so far (and I’d hoped to squeeze in The Fog of War
as well): how easily, connivingly the Bush junta use the media as an extension of its power to mislead, misrepresent and lead the US populace and the world at large, and how condescendingly it really treats people’s basic right to know, question and differ. With implacable image management, PR and spin control: the envy of any warring administration.
I was then prompted by that theory of behaviour (Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
) which says that deliberate personal misrepresentation and self-delusion are occasionally essential to surviving psychologically in a complex world. Only — extend this idea a little, when you have on the one hand a president blissfully deluded about the state of the world and his god-given mission in it (or rather, who lets
himself be lead to believe such things) and an administration willing to spread this arrogance of self-delusion (and condescendingly at that); and on the other hand an electorate equally in denial about the reality of their leaders and the world situation because they’d rather identify with heroes who ‘tell it like it is’ (Fox-Bush election slogan), wear jump suits and vaguely fulfil some Hollywood ideal of ‘commander in chief’ who makes them feel better about themselves — what happens when the self-deluded let themselves be ruled by the self-deluded and the cynical? (I am of course speaking of the Bush-boosting portion of Bovine America, not all of it). How is it that the only group which can hold Bush accountable, the voting public, has failed? Can the mythical US system of ticks & balances really stand up to the attacks on the rights of its people and the partisan abuse of its media? This problem of the populace is also a media problem.
One of the journos/executives of Al Jazeera mentioned his channel as acting like a wake-up call for the broader Arab world. But which media power is going to demand the US populace wake up? Who’s going to be the Anti-Murdoch? The average American mind needs to be rescued. Michael Moore isn’t quite up to it. Things will have to get a lot worse before the delusion-bubble bursts. The apathy has to be canned.
The only vaguely positive conclusion about the state of America, when taking all this in, is that the land and its political administration are in desperate need of reform. And I’m thinking major reform, economic-grade reform, electoral reform, democratic reform. And as soon as that thought became text I pictured some secondary but shadowy NeoCon think-tank already on the case, blue-printing their own Cultural Revolution for America and its interests as soon as GWB wins his second term. Dark times. A society that can sustain the most blatant contradictions and illogicality (“Fair & Balanced”) is in serious need of revisioning.
Instead, give them plenty of entertainment and Brittney and the Olsens and MTV and Wil Smith and Jessica Lynch and Oprah and Leno and plenty of Coors Light. Plenty of iPods. Plenty of 21” rims. Propatainment. Enterganda. Keep them feeling good.
In all honesty, and I blame Andrew (as well as a televisual synergy) for prompting me to this, but I have come to the rather dishonourable conclusion, after watching the warmth and dryly bemused humour of the Al Jazeera journalists in The Control Room
, and the insanely obvious stage management of the media and news events by CentCom in Iraq, and the doco’s rather sobering but truthful conclusion (among many conclusive points) that the war achieved the pressing need for a sense of victory
like a very familiar Hollywood action plot — indeed, that that was
the operating narrative adapted by CentCom — I have come to the conclusion that this skewed logic should be extended to its rightful extreme by sending in Steven Seagal
to clean up the mess in Iraq. He would get the job done. He would identify the correct enemy. He would patiently, calmly destroy every set — I mean, residence and restaurant — that he walks through. He would invoke the most appropriate airy Buddhist cliché about the cessation of suffering (choice line from The Glimmer Man
: ‘You are one mysterious motherfucker’). He would remain calm in the face of emotional and tribal extremism. He would be our archetypal/comicbook/unflappable hero. Send in Steven.
I think my plan is as hysterically appropriate as the Bush junta is hubristic.