Nets wrestle with covering Saddam fate
EmptyNEW YORK -- What appeared to be a cell phone video emerged Saturday afternoon from the scene of Saddam Hussein's execution, with some U.S. networks running some of the video but exercising restraint.
Fox News Channel was the first to run shortly after 4 p.m. EST Saturday the grainy, shaky video, which includes another angle of the hanging and also audio of sometimes testy exchanges between Hussein, his executioners and witnesses as the former dictator was led to the gallows.
It wasn't clear who shot the video -- which appeared on a Web site and then on a pan-Arab news channel -- or how it made its way to the public. The video was later uploaded to APTN, the Associated Press' video news service, which made it available to every network.
"The real journalistic value of the footage, if it is authentic, is that it gives you much more of the context surounding his execution," said CNN President Jon Klein. "You learn so much more about what really was said, and how fraught with sectarian fervor the whole issue was. That could not be conveyed better than listening to the sound of the moment, even more so than the video."
"It was a different angle of what we had already seen," said David Rhodes, vp of news at Fox News Channel. "It was useful because there's some audio on it that you didn't necessarily hear in the previous version, and it's a fuller picture as to what was happening. You can here all the principals speaking."
Fox News Channel wasn't willing to carry anything further than where it had stopped with the government-provided videotape, with the noose being fitted around Hussein's neck. The cell phone video continues with Hussein's body falling through the trap door, but no U.S. network ran it on the air. CNN also showed the video up to the noose, not necessarily because of any camera angle but too, like others, because of the audio.
CNN's Web site showed only up the point just before Hussein fell; Fox News' site showed what appeared to be the entire video, including Hussein's lifeless body on the ground with his neck broken. Both sites warned viewers about the graphic nature of the footage.
MSNBC.com, on the other hand, adhered to the standards of NBC News and didn't show the graphic parts of the video. NBC News showed some of the Iraqi government's video and reporting by Richard Engel of what eyewitnesses said, along with a shot of Hussein's wrapped in a shroud with his head poking out -- the same shot, NBC News President Steve Capus noted, that was on the front page of The New York Times. But in consultation with his deputies including, standards vp David McCormack and senior vp Alex Wallace, Capus ruled most of the cell phone video off limits.
"I really don't believe that it's appropriate to show much of that," Capus said Sunday afternoon. "It shows the execution, and we're not going to show that. I don't believe it's appropriate to show that to the audience, I don't think it's our responsibility to show an actual execution on videotape."
When discussing with Capus via telephone over the weekend about whether to run the tape, Wallace sent her four-year-old daughter out of the room.
"Here you have a news executive who needs to talk about what's appropriate and what's not appropriate and that just drove home for me the responsibility we have," Capus said.
Even though Hussein has been dead since Friday night U.S. time, the spectre of even more video could lead to another round of soul-searching by the U.S. networks. Rhodes said the decision was made by a "consensus" of key people at the channel, but he didn't rule out running other video if it surfaces.
"There's definitely an argument to run it and arguments not to," Rhodes said Sunday. "Right now we're not planning to, but there's certainly in the feedback we get from viewers, we've had people encouraging us on both sides to run it and not to run it. It's something we wrestle with journalistically."
Capus said he couldn't envision more video that would fill in any more what has already been reported and broadcast.
"That kind of grainy, cell phone image, there's a kind of sick voyeuristic quality to it if you think about it," Capus said. "I don't think it adds anything."
In what has been a busy weekend for news the holiday notwithstanding, Hussein's execution remained only one of the many things that the networks were following. There was the beginning of the state funeral for former President Ford, a big snowstorm hitting Denver and the middle of the country that threatened to wreck travel plans and the turn of the year to 2007 as well as singer James Brown's funeral.
The journalistic decisions capped a late-week round of meetings held at the networks to try to decide how far they would go on the air if graphic video emerged of Hussein's execution. [THR 12/29/06]
"We had a number of conversations in the hours before the execution when it became clear that there was likely to be a video camera there," said NBC's Capus. "But it's hard to say definitively what you're going to do without seeing the video."
Saturday's initial video came from the Iraqi government, which showed an apparently calm Hussein being led to the gallows surrounded by hooded men (and another, without a hood, whose face was pixelated). One of the hooded men spoke to Hussein, who responded -- there was no audio in this version -- and then the noose was put around his neck and tightened.
That brief footage -- and a still shot of Hussein's lifeless body wrapped in white after his hanging -- was all that the networks had received in time for the early Saturday? news shows.
The networks were split on showing Saddam's body. CNN and Fox showed a still photograph, with Fox News showing a before-and-after with one shot of the dictator in his heyday captions "Alive" and the other today "Dead." MSNBC and NBC News didn't show any until later in the day and on Sunday's "Meet The Press" merely talked about the cell phone video but didn't show it.
"I did believe it was appropriate to show one final image of him after the death," Capus said.
So did CNN's Klein, who in an interview late Sunday didn't rule out using the execution footage in another context somewhere down the line but not immediately.
Klein said that the existence of the cell phone video wasn't known ahead of time but it was somewhat predictable.
"It's almost come to the point where you're assuming that there's some alternate, bootleg version of an event, especially a scheduled event," Klein said. "You sorta had the feeling that (the Iraqi government version) wasn't going to be the only one .. It's been a net plus for the audience because they got to see the unvarnished version. The government video cast the event in one particular light, and along comes this cell-phone video and tells a completely different story."
Even with Saddam's execution, the networks were more than willing to turn the page on Saturday morning. Fox News Channel carried reports on the other stories of this busy New Year's holiday weekend, including a correspondent live in snowy Denver, footage of former President Ford lying in state at a Palm Springs, Calif., church, and behind the scenes at Times Square ahead of New Year's Eve. In the 9 a.m. hour, Fox News found time for Nickelodeon's Drake Bell to perform live.
Fox postponed the business program, "The Cost of Freedom," and CNN pre-empted "House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta" due to the news. MSNBC's news continued as scheduled throughout the morning with a steady diet of crime news such as the murder of the wife of a University of Pennsylvania professor and the troubles for the district attorney in the Duke University rape case.
And Hussein's execution was pushed off the top of the broadcast news Saturday night by the coverage from Washington, D.C., on the district's portion of the Ford state funeral. The networks brought all their big guns out to the scene, which included a motorcade, a brief ceremony at the World War II Memorial and then the traditional honors at the Capitol Rotunda before Ford's body lie in state through Tuesday.
It wasn't that way Friday night, when the news channels were wall-to-wall Saddam with a kind of macabre death watch up to 10 p.m. EST, which by late Friday afternoon was fixed as the time of Saddam's execution. All three news channels offered live coverage, with a half-hour live "The O'Reilly Factor" and an hour-and-a-half "Hannity & Colmes." Larry King hosted a live hour at 9 p.m. EST featuring interviews with a number of journalists, and scored an interview after 9:30 p.m. with one of Saddam's lawyers who told "Mr. Larry" that there was no hope left that the execution would not go forward.
After 10 p.m. all three had thrown, for the most part, to their Baghdad correspondents who were monitoring Arab networks and reported instantly when those channels said the execution had taken place. On broadcast TV, NBC was the first on the air with a special report by Campell Brown at 10:14 pm. EST. CBS' Katie Couric followed at 10:18 p.m. and ABC's Elizabeth Vargas interrupted a two-hour "20/20" at 10:25 p.m. with word of the execution that had, by that time, been confirmed by multiple sources. ABC continued its coverage on "Nightline."