Saddam Execution Spotlights How Viral Video Is Changing TV Standards

Networks aired or linked to footage that once seemed unthinkably graphic.

Over the past year, we’ve come to expect everything to end up on YouTube and other viral-video sites, from Mel Gibson’s drunken rant to Britney’s pratfalls and, most disturbingly, last week’s hanging of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

And while nearly all the TV networks seemed comfortable with airing most or all of the Gibson rant (see “From ’Mad Max’ To His Infamous Rant: Mel Gibson’s Highs And Lows” ) or clips of Michael Richards’ racially charged diatribe, the grainy footage of Hussein’s execution presented a dilemma (see “Saddam Hussein Put To Death” ). Adhering to decades-old standards on one of the biggest news stories of the year put the networks at risk of being scooped by the Internet. It also presented the strongest evidence yet that viral video — immediate, free and mostly unfettered by standards — has the potential to change the way we see and receive news.

“It’s true. Once it’s on the Internet, the networks — who are already feeling like they’re falling behind in information gathering because the Internet is more instantaneous — have to respond,” said Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center of the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “They’ve started to ask the question of whether all this propriety makes sense in the first place. We went to war in part to capture this guy and execute him. The idea that in the 21st century we’re wringing our hands over this is so strange and hypocritical given that we execute people every day in this country, but it’s OK because we don’t see it.”

Hypocritical or not, Sandy Genelius, a spokesperson for CBS News, said her network obtained the footage shot surreptitiously on a cell phone by someone at the hanging — which has led to three arrests by the Iraqi government — and chose not to show it.

“Our thinking hasn’t changed [because of the ubiquity of viral video],” Genelius said. “Our network-news division has certain considerations regarding taste and appropriateness when it comes to these things, and it may sound archaic, but we’ve always lived by those standards. We have a large and diverse audience and the CBS Evening News is seen at 6:30 and there might be kids watching, and we have to take into account the audience and make editorial decisions to serve that audience.”

Genelius said even though viral video seems to have an effect on 24-hour news networks that are more competitive with the Internet, it hasn’t changed decision-making at CBS News or its Web sites.

That answer didn’t surprise Joseph Laszlo, who covers online media for Jupiter Research. “I don’t see YouTube affecting what the networks air on TV anytime soon,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Network news is far more beholden to viewer calls, network affiliate sensibilities and, most importantly, the FCC’s restrictions on what can be broadcast than it is to YouTube. For the time being, Internet video is not really a strong substitute for broadcast TV. Very few consumers say they are watching less TV because they are watching more Internet. Instead, video on the Net is a complement to video on TV.”

Given the continuing fallout from Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl — which has made the major networks more afraid than ever of running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission — Laszlo said he thinks networks will increasingly use their Web sites to show content they feel is inappropriate for television but might add context to a story. As an example, he pointed to the coverage by ABC News of the Mark Foley congressional page scandal, in which the network posted uncensored transcripts of Foley’s instant messages on but was less graphic in its on-air discussion (see “Is Congress’ Page Program Still Safe For Teens In Light Of Scandal?” ).

Even mainstream media outlets like The New York Times took that tack with the Saddam hanging, showing the full video on its site via a link to the viral site, while Fox News linked to Google Video for its feed. After the Hussein footage aired on an Arabic language Web site on Saturday, the Hollywood Reporter said it was quickly uploaded to The Associated Press’ video-news service and made available to every network, with Fox News Channel first running some of the footage of Hussein and his executioners exchanging tense words at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.

The fast turnaround was typical for Fox News, according to Jerry Burke, executive producer for the station’s morning news program “Fox & Friends.” “Fox has always been very aggressive in the news, but we’ve also been very mindful of our audience and the fact that for the morning audience, children could be watching,” he said. Despite the aggressive posture, Burke stressed that Fox News makes a distinction between what is appropriate to show on TV and what works on the Internet, “which is something you do in private and have to seek out as opposed to being dumped in your lap like TV.”

Yes, the YouTubes of the world are putting pressure on news outlets to stay on their toes and are creating what Burke called an “ethical creep.” But what he and his peers have to keep in mind, he said, was that the same thing that draws eyeballs online could be so gross that it turns into what they call “turn-off TV.” That’s created what looks like a double standard in which what’s good for a network’s Web site might not be good for its airwaves.

“We provide the opportunity to see it on our Web site … where you have to get up, log on, click, click over to it, which takes an effort,” Burke explained. “But once it’s on TV, it’s on its way out there to Mars and there’s nothing you can do about.”

CNN President Jon Klein told the Reporter that, “The real journalistic value of the footage, if it is authentic, is that it gives you much more of the context surrounding his execution. … 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.” A spokesperson for CNN did not return calls for comment at press time.

No U.S. network showed the actual cell phone video footage of Hussein’s body falling through the trap door, though most did show the government-provided video that stopped when the noose was fitted around his neck. And while CNN’s Web site showed the video just up to the point where Hussein fell, Fox News’ site showed the entire video, including Hussein’s lifeless body on the ground and his neck broken, according to the Reporter.

A New York Times spokesperson told Online Media Daily that while the paper didn’t post the execution video itself, it provided a link because “the political and other consequences of what was seen and heard on the video were major news stories from Iraq after the execution.” Plus, the spokesperson added, “many Web sites had posted it.”

A spokesperson for YouTube couldn’t be reached for comment, but Online Media Daily noted that even the ubiquitous viral site that houses any number of bizarre, offensive and graphic clips faced a dilemma when it came to the Hussein hanging.

Although the clip is not specifically forbidden by YouTube’s rules, OMD noted that in the past, clips showing a death have usually fallen in the range of content that’s considered “obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic … encourages conduct that would be considered a criminal offense … or is otherwise inappropriate.” As an example, it cited YouTube removing multiple copies of the 2004 beheading of Nick Berg by terrorists in Iraq and the on-camera 1987 suicide of former Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer.

The networks that declined to show the clips because they’re adhering to some “archaic” standards are behind the curve, Thompson said, but it’s not worth the hassle with the FCC for them to be blamed for corrupting America’s youth. Not to mention the fact that three children around the world have died in copycat hanging accidents in the past week, Burke pointed out.

“My guess, though, is that in two or three years we’re going to see it completely change,” Thompson said. “It’s a quick step to go from saying, ’We can’t show it because it’s against our standards, but here’s a link to it.’ To, ’If everyone can see it, including kids, what’s the difference? Why not show it?’ ”

Showing it might upset an 8-year-old, Thompson said, “But should American journalism conduct itself based on what will upset an 8-year-old? I don’t think so.”