Nets air edited Saddam vid
EmptyNEW YORK -- Major news outlets faced an ultimate ethical dilemma -- whether or not to televise an execution -- when what appeared to be cell phone video emerged Saturday from the scene of Saddam Hussein's execution. Some U.S. networks ran portions of the video, which predictably spread like wildfire through the Internet.
Fox News Channel was the first to run some of the footage shortly after 4 p.m. EST Saturday. The grainy, shaky video includes an angle of the hanging and audio of sometimes testy exchanges between Saddam, his executioners and witnesses as the former dictator is 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 surrounding 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 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 hear all the principals speaking."
Fox News Channel wasn't willing to carry anything further than where it had stopped with the government-provided videotape, when the noose was being fitted around Saddam's neck. The cell phone video continues with Saddam's body falling through the trap door but no U.S. network ran that portion on the air. CNN too showed the video up to the noose, not necessarily because of any camera angle but, like others, because of the audio.
CNN's Web site showed the tape only up the point just before Saddam fell; Fox News' site showed what appeared to be the entire video, including Saddam's lifeless body on the ground with his neck broken. Both sites warned viewers about the graphic nature.
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 Saddam's body 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 video tape."
When conferring 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 Saddam has been dead since Friday night U.S. time, the specter 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.
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 Saddam's execution (HR 12/29).
Saturday's initial video came from the Iraqi government, which showed an apparently calm Saddam 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 Saddam, 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 Saddam's lifeless body wrapped in white after his hanging -- was all that the networks had received in time for the early Saturday evening news programs. The major 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 "Alive" and the other today "Dead." MSNBC and NBC News didn't show any until later in the day. On Sunday's "Meet the Press" the cell phone video footage was discussed but not shown.
"I did believe it was appropriate to show one final image of him after the death," Capus said.