Powerful images make for compelling TV news

But context, perspective found to be in short supply during some of coverage

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The capture of Saddam Hussein was a slam-dunk made-for-TV story, and the major television networks and cable channels were perfectly in place yesterday morning to tell it. The result was a compelling story driven by eloquent images and an almost dizzying compression of news cycles.

The primary language of television is visual, and the videotape images of a bedraggled and heavily bearded Hussein sitting passively as his mouth and scraggly hair were probed, poked and inspected by a military doctor were stunning.

"The images of Saddam sitting there as he was being inspected had such power that they reminded me of the photographs of Che Guevara just after he was killed," said Ed Worteck, a professor at Goucher College who teaches documentary photography.

"Even given the differences in politics [between the two men] and the fact that Saddam is still alive, the pictures of Che and of Saddam both said `gotcha' in the same incredibly powerful way," Worteck said, referring to a widely reproduced photograph of Che taken in Peru in 1967.

Worteck allowed that each viewer would make his or her own sense of the images of the ragged Hussein and the hole in which he was found. But one message was impossible to miss: Hussein was subdued and under control.

In television terms, the story line was an easy one to craft. Simply spilt the screen. On one side, feature images of Hussein at the height of power, such as those in which children stand along a palace path and wave flowers as he passes. On the other side, show the hide-out and the ragged man who was pulled out of it by his captors. The split-screen technique of TV storytelling was used across the dial yesterday.

But TV storytelling wasn't only done with pictures. Because CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox News all had staff members on hand and major political figures booked for their Sunday morning shows, they were able to supply several levels of near-instant reaction to Hussein's capture.

Reuters sent the first bulletin into U.S. television newsrooms at 4:55 a.m. yesterday, and by 6 a.m., nearly everyone was on the air with the story. By 8:30 a.m., reaction from many world leaders had been reported.

By 9 a.m. - more than three hours before President Bush officially announced Hussein's capture to the nation - the news was relatively old as Democratic presidential hopefuls and Republican officials started trying to make political gain out of the events.

In the end, there is more to great television news coverage than strong visuals and instant reaction. For example, context and perspective are also needed. But both were in short supply yesterday.

Typical of the overheated rhetoric that filled America's Sunday morning airwaves was a comment by Simon Marks, a Fox News contributor. He told viewers that the public trial of Hussein "would be on a par with Nuremberg - perhaps even more dramatic."

More dramatic than the moral accounting of World War II and the Holocaust conducted in the heart of Nazi Germany? Only in the heat of cable news coverage would such a claim so carelessly be made.

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