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From Baghdad Battles to Media Wars (Part I)

Two weeks ago we discussed former Marine and present-day author Josh Rushing, whose career path has taken him press liaison in Iraq -- where he was featured in the documentary "Control Room" -- to correspondent for Al Jazeera's English-language network. I recently had a conversation with him where we talked about, among other things, American media, Pat Tillman, Jon Stewart and how, when you really think about it, Qatar is a little like Delaware.

Matthew Felling: You're from Texas. What sort of a response has your family and community had to your career path?

Josh Rushing: My hometown doesn't know much about me anymore. It used to be the first county town north of Dallas, but it was swallowed by a shopping mall about fifteen years ago. I can no longer go home again, but I can shop there. That's a line from "Gross Point Blank;" I'm stealing from John Cusack. My parents moved out to an even smaller town, called Lone Star. I've faced a lot of grief for the decisions I've made, being a part of Al Jazeera, and that's okay.

But I kind of feel bad about my parents, because they're the ones in the small town—mom's on city council, they go to a small church there—and everyone there knows that I work for Al Jazeera. And so poor mom and dad are left defending and explaining my decision in a much more difficult environment than I do, on a daily basis. So they carry the brunt for me there. But they soldier on, they defend me, they're very proud of me and the decisions I've made. So I'm lucky in that regard. I've got a great family.

Matthew Felling: So did you have to give them a talking point or two to answer the questions back home?

Josh Rushing: Nah, they've been my number one fans throughout this entire journey. Every interview I've given, they've watched. They were there before ["Control Room"] was released, and watched this thing blow up on the web before it was released in the theaters. So having been there every step of the way, having read every single interview or watched every single interview, they know the story just as well as I do.

And the funny thing is, while my parents do travel – my dad worked for American Airlines – they're not entirely keen on international issues. They're the kind of people who wake up early, work outside, work hard all day long – kind of a Midwestern work ethic – so they're not the people who sit around reading The New Republic or the New York Times, that sort of thing. And now they're thrust into the center of this debate over Al Jazeera, and its importance as far as America's strategic interests are concerned. So it's sort of a curious thing to watch them defend the issue.

Matthew Felling: The movie "Control Room" put you on the radar screen. In the book you didn't necessarily take issue with the movie, but you want to clarify how your quotes were edited. What did you think they did to your words?

Josh Rushing: You're right, I don't take issue with the movie. I think it's interesting and it tells an even broader story, by telling the truth. Not that they're trying to conceal the truth, but it's more just the magic of Hollywood. I met this producer and had one conversation with him. One time. I wasn't supposed to be a main character or anything. I was just a side guy, and they wanted their producer to sit down and talk with somebody.

It was after they left Central Command and went back to Egypt and they didn't have my contact information. They're going through the tapes and they look at that one conversation and they decide, 'This is it. This is the bridge for the whole film.' So they cut that conversation – and I've only seen the movie twice, so I'm not sure – into like 6 or 8 different segments, and they spread those segments throughout the film, with the events of the war raging in the background. So weeks are passing in between these segments from this one conversation. So when you watch the movie, it seems like I have this three-month long relationship with an Al Jazeera producer.

And the other interesting thing is, it wasn't an Al Jazeera on-camera interview I was giving this guy. It was a behind-the-scenes discussion. And even though there were cameras there, they weren't Al Jazeera cameras, so in my mind they didn't count because it wasn't a hard-nosed interview. The discussion had a lot of me holding the government line on why we were there and what we were doing, and some of me trying to understand their point of view and how they thought. So there were a lot of statements about weapons of mass destruction, and then some like 'I see how you can see it differently, that it looks like an occupation.' It was a complex conversation.

When they put them into the film, they put the ones where I'm holding the government line in the first part. And the ones where I say 'I see how you can see it that way' in the latter part of the film. So as you're watching this, and it seems like weeks are passing, that I'm having this long relationship with this producer – and that my point of view is changing: That I was the close-minded hardline Republican that everyone was expecting me to be, and that as the events of the war unfolded, I became much more open-minded and aware.

Technically, that's not the way it happened. But, given the license to tell the story the best way possible, they represented me in a very honest and fair way. I was a guy who was trying to stick to my guns as to why we were there, and yet was trying to figure out what was going on and how they saw it, and trying to look at our actions through their eyes. Which, if you really try to do it, that's an uncomfortable thing to do .. and is a broadening experience.

So I think that, artistically, they capture what I was going through with exact precision. But the way they went about it, it wasn't exactly how it happened.

Matthew Felling: And this leads to the phenomenon where Republicans walked out of the movie thinking you stuck to your guns, and liberals walk out thinking that you came around to their side.

Josh Rushing: You're absolutely right. My role in the film doesn't seem to change many minds. It reinforces whatever baggage people brought to the movie. The one thing it does do, in terms of changing minds, is – particularly the more liberal the viewer, since this came out in the height of the Abu Ghraib crisis – the liberal people who thought that soldiers were ignorant and closed-minded and abusive and xenophobic and they come away thinking that maybe some soldiers are trying to listen and understand the other side. And they come away with a little softer view of guys in uniform. And the truth is, there are a lot of guys in uniform like me. So if I opened some people's eyes just a little bit – let them know there are guys out there trying to do the right thing, and are really concerned about this – then I think that's a good thing.

Matthew Felling: On the issue of polarization, one of your quotes that got massively publicized was when you compared Fox News Channel to Al Jazeera. In your book, you mention a few anecdotes about how Fox was reporting on the war. How did you view their coverage?

Josh Rushing: When I would go out and give reasons why we were going to invade Iraq, having been given the messages from a Republican operative that was my boss, he would give me the theme of the day. Sometimes it would be "WMD," others it would be "regime change" and others it would be "ties to terrorism." I would go out to a Fox reporter and they would say "Are there any messages you want to get across before we get to the live interview?" And we would script the interview around the government messaging, and they would thank me for my service at the end of it. And out of fairness, that wasn't just Fox. There were a number of American networks who did it. The reporters were in a position where there was no way their editorial leadership or their audience for that matter, wanted to see them be critical of a young troop in uniform.

But the devious part of that, is that the administration knew that and understood that and used young troops in uniform to sell the war in a way it knew couldn't be questioned or criticized. If you look at MSNBC, they packaged their coverage with a banner that said "Our Hearts Are With You." So when that banner is under my face and I'm giving the reasons why we need to go to war, is anyone going to ask me a critical question? Of course not, their hearts are with me. And there's a danger in that.

The media's purpose in a democracy is to be professionally skeptical of anything that anyone in a position of authority or power says. If they're not, who is? Nobody, and then the people in authority and power can say and do anything they want. So I was disappointed in that.

There are other examples, with Fox in particular. Fox likes personalities, and Geraldo Rivera covered the war on live TV and was giving away future troop movements by drawing a map in the sand.

There was another case where a Fox reporter was reporting live from in front of an Abrams tank that was on fire. The conventional wisdom was that Abrams tanks were impervious to the technology that the fedayeen had, small arms. But it turns out that if you did hit an Abrams tank in a certain spot with a rocket-propelled grenade, you could stop it and destroy it. So the Fox correspondent is reporting that, live on television: where the weak spot is and how this must have happened. Anyone watching that stuff, Iraqi intelligence officials, fedayeen soldiers – and we know they were watching it – would be like 'great, next time I see an Abrams, I'm gonna save my shot until I see the money shot and aim for the vulnerable spot I saw on TV. Thank you, Fox News.' Or anyone being watching the live report from Geraldo – where he's drawing the map in the sand – could say 'great, I know they're coming and they're bringing Geraldo with them.' There's a danger in that.

And the thing is, Fox likes to see themselves as so pro-military and patriotic and they like to share their knowledge, like they're one of the guys. It's also interesting to note now how little Fox covers the war. MSNBC covered the war three times as much as Fox, I think in June. You've got to be kidding me. The number one cheerleader for this war is now just leaving it behind?

(Check back in tomorrow, as we discuss Pat Tillman, covering Qatar from Qatar, and what's in Jon Stewart's swag bag.)