Nets wrestle with covering Saddam fate

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Television networks Thursday debated what they're comfortable with showing in their coverage of Saddam Hussein's impending execution, which may be videotaped and perhaps aired on Iraqi TV.

No one knows when the former Iraqi president, convicted this year in the deaths of 148 Iraqis in 1982, will be hanged. Several sources said Saddam's execution would be videotaped by the Iraqi government, though it wasn't clear whether it would be released to the public or broadcast.

But word spread fast Thursday throughout network news circles that Saddam's execution could happen as early as today, and questions arose over what the networks would do with any possible video or still photographs taken during and after the sentence is carried out. Judging from the Iraqi government's release Tuesday of videotape of the hanging of 13 convicts, it could be gruesome. Meetings were held Thursday in at least two network headquarters over how to handle the potentially graphic images.

ABC and CBS said they wouldn't air the full execution if the video became available and might not air anything or show a brief, nongraphic portion. NBC and ABC plan to break into regular programming to announce that Saddam's sentence had been carried out. NBC News said it still was discussing what it would do, but it's clear it also won't run graphic footage.

"We're very aware that we're coming into people's living rooms and that there could be children watching," CBS News senior vp Linda Mason said.

Mason and her network counterparts have broadcast standards and procedures they follow in these cases. Phil Alongi, special-events executive producer at NBC News, said there are ways the network can approach the video or photographs that will get the point across without having to be graphic.

The operative word: taste.

"We have very, very strict guidelines with how to deal with that," said Bob Murphy, senior vp at ABC News. "If there were pictures made available of the execution, they would have to be viewed by senior management before we would put them on the air, and we would make a judgment of taste and propriety of what we would show."

CNN and Fox News Channel still were discussing what they would do if the footage were made available. It also wasn't clear what the newly launched network Al-Jazeera International would do. An e-mail and phone call to the channel's Qatar headquarters weren't returned Thursday. Despite popular assumptions to the contrary, Al-Jazeera's pan-Arab channel has never shown an execution.

While video of an execution would be unprecedented in U.S. television, the war in Iraq has led to a number of judgment calls on graphic video. The U.S. military released graphic photographs of Saddam's two sons who were killed in a U.S. raid on their Mosul hideout in July 2003.

"We edited down the pictures to show only what was appropriate, what we thought was appropriate," Murphy said. "We didn't show the pictures live (when the network received them), and we made sure that they showed enough of the bodies so that it was clearly them, but we didn't dwell on it."

None of the networks showed the beheading of Nick Berg, an American who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq in May 2004. But Berg's beheading by kidnappers — along with the killings of others, including a South Korean — was distributed on the Internet and fed to American networks that chose not to use the footage.

Mason, Alongi and Murphy said Thursday that an execution video widely distributed on the Internet wouldn't change their minds about not airing the graphic portions of any video.
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