Outside the mainstream

Graphic footage of Hussein execution easily found on Internet

January 03, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

In the swirl of news coverage of the death of Saddam Hussein, the image of the former dictator with a noose around his neck was an obvious attention-getter. Many newspaper editors and television news producers ran it prominently, a fitting coda to the demise of a hubristic despot.

But they stopped short of showing the execution itself, the moment when Hussein plunged through a trapdoor at his feet, the rope snapping his neck.

But on the Internet, there were no such compunctions. Footage of Hussein falling to his death amid the curses of his executioners is easily found, in the same way as the far more gruesome executions of hostages in Iraq whose throats were slit on camera by hooded insurgents. Likewise, the decapitation of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan was viewed around the world on the Internet in 2002.

Since Hussein's execution before dawn Saturday in Baghdad, millions of people have downloaded the graphic Hussein video - apparently shot with a cell phone camera by an Iraqi official. Technorati.com, a Web site that tracks online activity, listed the Hussein footage yesterday as the most-searched item on the Internet. Of the top six listed items, five referred to Hussein. Pop star Britney Spears claimed the No. 3 spot.

"The wide availability of images of the execution is further evidence of the democratization of the media and the corresponding decline of the role of the gatekeeper," said W. Joseph Campbell, an associate professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agreed.

"TV and newspapers are perceived as something that come into your home and that set the agenda - the journalist outlining the parameters of importance and taste," he said. "The Internet is something that is more user-centric. You, the consumer, go to that Web site that day and actively click on that item, perhaps even register or agree to a warning about graphic content. What we are seeing are media finding their different roles, including where they complement each other, not just where they compete."

Those disparate roles are "part of the settling-in process that occurs as old media come to have a more limited but distinct role against a new rival," Rosenstiel said. "We will increasingly see the older, `flatter' media of TV and print serving the role as alerting people to events and then pointing them to the strengths of the Internet for more."

Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies the Internet's effect on society, said many traditional news organizations "see themselves as stewards of community values" who do not want to alienate their core audience, regardless of competitive forces.

"Some news organizations are not necessarily going to participate in this race to disclose everything, in part because their brand is built around the notion of what's appropriate and not appropriate," said Rainie, a former New York Daily News reporter who was also an editor at U.S. News & World Report.

It's ironic, he said, that the easy availability on the Internet of scenes from executions recalls the large crowds that attended public executions in the Middle Ages or even that of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who was executed in public in 1945 and hanged upside down in a Milan square. In 1989, the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena Petrescu, were executed in public by a firing squad in Targoviste during an uprising against his rule.

"The free-for-all world of the Internet takes us back to prehistoric times, when everyone knew everyone else's business," Rainie said. "There weren't many things where the community averted their eyes."

Terry Michael, director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, which runs a political education program for journalists, said that if mainstream news media want to maintain credibility, "they have to resist pandering to prurient interests."

"Declining to use pictures of Saddam Hussein dangling from a rope is no different than The New York Times opting not to print scenes from Paris Hilton's sex video or CBS News bleeping the F-word from an interview," Michael said. "Just because content consumers can locate almost anything on the Web doesn't issue a license to serious journalism to join the circus. The best way to lose readers and viewers is to dumb down your standards. Why pay for your daily paper if it offers you nothing more serious than home videos on YouTube or the rantings of some idiot with a blog?"Nick.Madigan@baltsun.com

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