These two now-rentable documentaries are a great double feature on the interlocking themes of media manipulation and human gullibility. Without the latter, the former wouldn’t work. If people weren’t so easy to fool, the media would have to put out truly fair and balanced news because the citizenry wouldn’t tolerate having the wool pulled over its eyes.
In reality, however, there’s a symbiotic relationship between media shepherds and the sheep-like reading/watching public. Watching these movies in tandem makes this connection more obvious. “Control Room” focuses on how the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera and the U.S. networks covered the early days of the Iraq war, and how the Pentagon tried to spin this coverage.
“The Yes Men” shows how some creative anti-World Trade Organization guys were able to put up a spoof GATT web site and get invitations to speak to groups about WTO policies. The amazing thing is that generally the Yes Men tricksters could do and say outrageous stuff with no outrageous reaction from the audience.
At one presentation they argued that, as Roger Ebert summarizes, “The involuntary servitude of imported labor, which is what slavery amounts to, has been replaced in our times by the much more efficient system of exporting jobs to countries that are poor to begin with, and thus have lower maintenance costs for labor. This ‘remote labor’ is the natural alternative to slavery…[The worker] is responsible for his own housing, feeding, and medical care—which can be at a cost level much lower than a slave owner could safely provide.”
Maybe PowerPoint dulls people’s critical thinking. Whatever, after the talk the audience dutifully applauded and didn’t ask any questions. Another time the Yes Man presenter ended a speech by ripping off his business suit, revealing a gold lame body suit that featured an inflatable phallic-like appendage which supposedly was a prototype design for technology that would enable managers to supervise employees from anywhere in the world.
You’ll have to see the movie to believe what the Yes Men got away with. Even when some students challenged their plan to recycle human excrement so a hamburger could be eaten over and over, thereby improving McDonalds’ profits and lowering food prices in the Third World, the challenge was to the plan, not to the credibility of the Yes Men themselves.
Why didn’t a student stand up and scream, “You guys aren’t real WTO representatives! You’re fakes!”? That’s the big question “The Yes Men” left in the minds of Laurel and me. More personally, how much of what we see and hear ourselves is as illusory as the Yes Men speeches? For example, is Fox News just another put-on, albeit vastly better financed and without gold lame body suits?
“Control Room” shows how different the Iraq war looked on Al Jazeera as compared to the U.S. networks and cable news channels. I came away with a much more sympathetic view of Al Jazeera. To some extent I had believed the Donald Rumsfeld bluster that Al Jazeera slants its coverage to show only the anti-American perspective. But after watching the movie’s interviews with Al Jazeera correspondents and editors, it’s obvious that they are committed to a vision of media integrity that is at least as valid as the Fox News version. Probably, more so.
Sure, Al Jazeera picks and chooses what to report. Images of dead Iraqi children are shown more often than pictures of Iraqis giving flowers to U.S. troops. Yet every news organization does the same thing: pick and choose. Worse, what is picked and chosen from may have already been manipulated, thereby increasing the illusion shown to viewers.
The scene of reveling Iraqis toppling the Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussein was one of the pivotal media moments of the Iraq war. However, an Al Jazeera correspondent argues persuasively that the men shown toppling the statue didn’t have Baghdad accents and seemed to have been brought by U.S. troops for a staged event. “Control Room” shows a different view of the toppling than was presented on American TV: the square looks almost deserted apart from the relatively few men taking the statue down.
So the moral from these movies is: don’t always believe what you see, hear, and read. Look at life through multiple eyes, various perspectives, alternative interpretations. Trust your instincts when something seems too ridiculous to be true. Likely, it isn’t.