“The Iraqi Mindfuck”: What is Truth in ‘Live from Bagdhad’?

Live From Baghdad (2002) • Mick Jackson [Director]
Starring Michael Keaton, Helena Bonham Carter and Joshua Leonard
Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham
Date: October 24, 2016

“The Iraqi Mindfuck”: What is Truth in Live from Baghdad?

From the moment that Robert Weiner informs his superiors that “we’re a 24 hour news network looking for a 24 hour story, and one just fell from the sky” (0:02:33), a media literate viewer should be able to conclude that Live from Baghdad is about much more than the start of The Gulf War.  In fact, the events leading up to the war in the film only truly serve as devices to further the reputation of CNN, which, as Weiner quickly points out, could use the ratings boost.  To a media literate viewer, it’s how Weiner and his crew as well as the other reporting teams in Baghdad handle these devices — how they perceive situations and choose to present them to the American public — that is more important to take into account.  Is his team perceiving and presenting these events correctly; that is, are they doing their duty to remain true to the American people as well as those in Baghdad?  Given the conflicted motives of the United States and Iraq, is that even possible?

One of the main conflicts driving this movie was the hunt for a good story- or hard news. As defined in our textbook on page 92, hard news is: “Stories that help citizens to make intelligent decisions and keep up with important issues of the day” (Baran 92).  What was going on in Baghdad was of extreme importance to people back in America, and CNN was the most dedicated network to getting informational, quality stories. There were times, however, when CNN struggled to get a good story, or were tricked into overlooking the hard news. For example, when the team of Robert Weiner, Ingrid, and other reporters made the extremely dangerous trip to Kuwait, they went explicitly to investigate the report that the Iraqis were removing infants from hospital incubators and leaving them to die:  “More allegations of Iraqi brutality emerged today…as Kuwaiti refugees testified before a Congressional committee: ‘They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor.’ Other witnesses told of torture and violence at the hands of Saddam’s troops.” (38:07).On the way to Kuwait, the reporters witness the carnage of the Gulf War in its rawest form: dead bodies littering the desert, abandoned tanks, and undernourished children running around (45:00).  It is this terrible scene that is the hard news; however, when the team reaches the hospital in Kuwait, they discover all of the babies in the incubators, and the doctors denied any sort of murder (45:50). Soft news is defined by Baran as “sensational stories that do not serve the democratic function of journalism” (Baran 92). The soft news in this situation was that nothing had happened to the babies in that specific hospital. Before the reporters could inquire about the other two hospitals, however, they were rushed out by Iranian soldiers. They recognize what has happened to them when they hear on the radio that there was no truth to the claims of Iraqi cruelty, as reported by CNN; the only issue is that no one from CNN had filed the story- they were tricked by the Iranian government, who did not want the story covered. Ingrid exclaims, “You know what just happened? We just became the story.” (47:30). Though the team did see the carnage of the war, Weiner says, “We didn’t shoot it, we can’t report it” (48:58). In this case, with an important story on the line, the Iranian government foiled the story in order to hide their corruption and murder.

Putting aside the concept of hard news vs soft news that can consistently be seen throughout the film, one has to acknowledge the fact that the media -whether from the Iraqi or the US government – is being monitored and manipulated in Live from Baghdad. As noted above, Weiner and his team flew to a location that was filled with hard and audience-capturing ‘stories’ (Kuwait), however, they were limited to only covering a story that wasn’t even necessarily true. Thus, making the Iraqi government, especially Naji Al-Hadithi, the gatekeepers for this scenario. In other words, they are filtering the information that will be passed on to outside countries. This also leads into discussing the degree of which citizens of the world outside of Baghdad are being properly informed regarding the city’s turmoils. A moment taken from Bob Vinton, an American kept hostage in the city, was interviewed on his views of his extended stay. Although Vinton did not mention any downsides and reported everything was great, his gestures expressed otherwise. Subsequently, he has taken away and the audience is left to assume he was being scolded by the government by sharing information that may not have been ‘pre-approved’. While Baghdad and its citizens were living through a rough time, the outside world knew close to nothing on the truth behind its turmoil. As expressed by Baran, aliteracy is possessing the ability to read but being unwilling to do so. This can be seen throughout the film, especially regarding America’s public media. Due to the fact, that most of them are not sure of what is happening, it becomes difficult on their part to interpret a meaningful interpretation.

Through both the production crew’s use of gatekeeping and the American public’s media aliteracy (in this case, their failure to fill in the blanks as Ingrid had initially expected them to) CNN helped maintain if not increase the United State’s soft power over Iraq.  When one country has soft power over another, their media outlets — CNN and other American news sources in this case — have the potential to change the image perceived by their own culture of the other country and its culture.  As our class learned from Reel Bad Arabs, this soft power over Iraq and Arab culture in general is created and held through the use of stereotyping, or the application of a standardized image or conception applied to members of certain groups, usually based on limited information (Baran 344).  

Applying this definition to the film, the “limited information” is exposed to Americans through their own aliteracy and CNN’s use of gatekeeping.  For example, in the scene

Even something as simple as word choice can change how a certain culture or country is perceived.

Even something as simple as word choice can change how a certain culture or country is perceived.

where Weiner and his crew formulates the segment on Saddam Hussein’s “photo op” with the British boy, he makes his writer change his description of the people being held from leaving Iraq from “guests” to “hostages” (14:38).

 

 Regardless of whether or not these people were in fact hostages, Weiner changes the otherwise neutral description

Arabs portrayed in "Death Before Dishonor."

Arabs portrayed in “Death Before Dishonor.”

into an emotionally-charged description biased against Iraq.  Liberties like this taken by CNN combined with Arab stereotypes accepted by a culture of aliterate Americans — such as the idea that all Arabs have terrorist ties like in Death Before Dishonor (Reel Bad Arabs 19:00) — helped increase the US’s soft power over Iraq in the early ‘90s.

Something that our group though of was that this movie was produced and released in 2002- just after 9/11 and just before the Iraq War. The mindset regarding Middle Eastern countries and their people was a very negative one, and we discussed this fact in relation to the way Iranians were treated in this film. The government is portrayed as corrupt, and Saddam Hussein is portrayed as a monster. Whether or not these portrayals are accurate is a matter to be considered, but this movie does an excellent job of showing America’s opinion at the time, and their fear of terrorist attacks.

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