“Inside Assad’s Syria,” Martin Smith’s latest documentary on the war in Syria, aired on PBS last night. The complete report can be viewed here.
As usual, Frontline’s signature narration comes in the introduction from Will Lyman, whose every utterance sounds like incontestable truth.
As a leading brand in documentary production and investigative journalism, Frontline presents itself — with varying degrees of success — as factual, unbiased, and free from the influence of the political agendas that distort a lot of news coverage. It caters to an audience that wants to understand the issues behind the headlines — viewers who are skeptical about official statements and partisan interpretations.
This is what makes Frontline influential — the level of trust it has won. But at the same time, Frontline’s credibility can on occasions be the very reason that a story, badly told, can be so harmful.
“Inside Assad’s Syria” is a case in point. The few comments that have already appeared on the Frontline website, demonstrate the film’s effect in shaping perceptions:
Maybe Assad should stay in power. — Helen Hodge Hesketh
It is truly the first program produced by a major American media outlet (that I am aware of) that has tried to present an honest and objective depiction of the ongoing tragedy in today’s Syria. — Brian Victoria
I’m just sick of the entire middle east. And I see -no- good guys. I no longer demonize Assad. — JC Harris
Undoubtedly the Assad government is far from the best, but do its deficiencies justify the destruction of Syrian society and the misery of the Syrian people? — surprisedmike
Shouldn’t US be embracing Assad instead of overthrowing his regime? — Irfan Haqqee
If, before broadcasting his film, Smith had invited the regime to vet his production, I suspect it would have received their unqualified approval. After all, the evidence suggests that PBS is more effective in boosting support for Assad than are many of his own media operatives.
Really, this is worse than Syrian state propaganda precisely because it has a veneer of objectivity. Smith delivers the regime’s message that it is the bulwark of stability and that its enemies are terrorists supported by foreign powers, but he does this by presenting himself as a passive witness — “I went, I saw…”
Having given the opposition no voice whatsoever — it merely looms in the background as a dark uncontrollable force outside the narrowing boundaries of state-sustained stability — towards the end of the film he finally seems to give the rebels a face and a voice in the form of Majd Heimoud, but not quite: This is a man who in 2011 defected from the Syrian army to the opposition, only to later rejoin the army.
“Someone in the president’s office wanted me to hear this story. It shows that there are some Free Syrian Army fighters willing to defect back to the regime side. How many is unclear. The great majority are still fighting Assad,” says the filmmaker.
This is Smith’s MO: His “honesty” derives from calling out those moments when he is transparently being used as an instrument of regime propaganda, as though this transparency means he no longer has that function.
It’s a subtle form of deception that simply makes the propaganda that much more effective. The message is of a rebellion leading to disenchantment, and a regime with the magnanimity to welcome back those it once lost. It hints at the faint promise of Assad, the peacemaker, while gliding over his responsibility in destroying his own country.
This is the core message in Smith’s portrayal of Syria: On one side we are shown images of stability and even prosperity and of a state much healthier than we had been led to imagine, and on the other side — shown mostly in clips from YouTube videos — is carnage, destruction, terrorism, and the influence of malevolent foreign powers. Smith points out that the regime and its supporters conflate all opposition groups by portraying them all as terrorists, but then, who does he call out by name more often than any other group? ISIS.
And in perhaps the most bizarre moment in the film, he even includes scenes from the trailer for a Syrian-made movie about Saudi Arabia which graphically shows a man’s hand being chopped off — an image that is not blurred because it’s a movie special effect — as the movie’s director says: “I believe that the swamp of terrorism and backwardness in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, and if we want to get rid of ISIS and Nusra, we have to get rid of the Saudi regime.”
The bulk of PBS’s liberal-minded audience might not support yet another call for regime change and yet this portrayal of Saudi Arabia as the well-spring of all strife across the Middle East, is a notion that resonates widely across the West. It serves the Assad regime well, by reinforcing its image as an embattled enclave, defending secularism and pluralism. And it sanctions ruthless violence by positing the alternative as worse.