The Iraq war is three years old now, and liberal journalists have spent much of that time trying to convince the public that the defanging of Saddam Hussein’s dangerous dictatorship has been a reckless disaster, a waste of more than 2,000 American lives. A recent Media Research Center study of broadcast network coverage in 2005 counted more than 1,000 TV stories that conveyed bad news about Iraq, a depressing daily drumbeat that drowns out the occasional success story.
One historic achievement the networks have practically ignored: bringing the mass-murdering ex-dictator himself before an Iraqi tribunal to answer for his crimes against humanity. Since Saddam’s trial began more than five months ago, ABC, CBS and NBC have mentioned the case in only 64 network evening news stories, or barely 90 minutes of coverage. In contrast, the first six months of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial garnered 431 stories (824 minutes) from those same networks, according to a 1994 Center for Media and Public Affairs study.
Of course, O.J. Simpson was accused of killing two people; Saddam is thought responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
When the networks have summoned the energy to mention the trial, reporters have found Saddam’s personal reactions and orchestrated antics more compelling than the witness testimony against him. Reviewing each news story about the trial, MRC analysts discovered that the three networks have given Saddam’s bizarre behavior more airtime than any other topic — nearly 30 minutes, or one-third of the coverage.
In contrast, the networks allotted just 11 and a half minutes for witness testimony and evidence, just slightly below the nearly 12 minutes devoted to suggestions Saddam would not get a fair hearing. That’s right — the networks gave roughly equal time to evidence showing Saddam ordered the butchering of hundreds of Iraqis as to complaints that the ex-dictator might not be on the receiving end of a procedurally perfect hearing.
On the Oct. 18 “World News Tonight,” for example, ABC’s Jim Sciutto worried how “human rights groups doubt the former dictator will get a fair trial, with five inexperienced judges unable to resist pressure for swift justice, and his legal team with little time to answer the charges.” On March 15, after Saddam’s testimony was cut off by the judge, ABC aired complaints from Saddam-defender Ramsey Clark: “Look, he’s on trial for his life. A defendant has a right to give his background and his thoughts and his emotions.”
None of the networks were diligent about presenting the key testimony. On December 5, Ahmed Muhammad testified about seeing in prison a grinding machine caked with human blood and hair. Of the three networks, only ABC’s “World News Tonight” passed along that grisly bit of evidence, along with the fact that Saddam laughed at the witness as he testified.
ABC was also the only newscast to air a full report on Saddam’s March 1 admission that he ordered the more than 140 killings in the town of Dujail, the incident at the heart of this particular case. (CBS and NBC gave that news just 11 and 18 seconds, respectively). But ABC (along with NBC) skipped the December 21 testimony of Ali al-Haydari, who was 14 when he saw evidence of torture: “I heard screaming and shouting, then silence as a body came out in a blanket.” But that same night all of the networks mentioned Saddam’s claim that U.S. soldiers had beaten him.
Despite the severity of the crimes, reporters fixated on the villain. “Saddam seemed like he was still president,” NBC’s Richard Engel announced on the October 19 “Nightly News.” To CBS’s Lara Logan, Saddam’s disruptive behavior was a winning strategy. “They’ve brought the proceedings to a halt, and the appearance of credibility is what really matters in this trial, and that’s what’s missing at the moment,” Logan opined on the February 2 “CBS Evening News.”
Perhaps the networks aren’t especially interested in showcasing the horrors of Saddam because it reminds viewers that American intervention wasn’t the beginning of all misfortune in Iraq, and because such stories make it plain that the remnants of the old regime who lash out at both our soldiers and the Iraqi population aren’t “freedom fighters,” but dangerous and despicable thugs.
But the evidence is the evidence, and liberal journalists do a disservice both to the American public and Saddam’s victims when they turn their backs on the awful truth of the old tyrant’s horrors. Indeed, Saddam’s courtroom theatrics are calculated to distract from the compelling evidence of his crimes and mock his victims’ quest for justice.
Reporters could have and should have resisted the impulse to reward such a cynical strategy. Instead, they’ve played right into his hands.