News: How and What to Show of Saddam Hussein’s Hanging

December 30, 2006–The hanging of Saddam Hussein turned Friday night into a high-wire act on TV news as the networks raced to determine if the former dictator’s sentence had been carried out and how they much should show of it.

The Iraqi government kept a tight lid on the proceedings after Hussein was handed over from U.S. custody for execution, keeping the mostly Green Zone-bound U.S. correspondents in the dark and forcing American news nets to rely heavily on Arab news sources for information.

Because of the secrecy, the networks had to watch as the information spread out to Arabic-language sources while they struggled to confirm it. Shortly after 10 p.m., Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC were all reporting the hanging had taken place, quoting Arabic news services.

“We’re hearing this straight off of Al-Arabiya,” said CNN’s Aneesh Raman, in Baghdad. The Dubai-based 24-hour news channel had a representative present at the execution, CNN said.

NBC was the first U.S. broadcast network to break into primetime programming, reporting at 10:14 p.m. EST that Hussein had been executed, according to three “very credible” Arabic-language stations.

CBS was the first network to independently confirm Hussein’s sentence had been carried out. Katie Couric broke into primetime with a special report at 10:18 p.m. with a live report from correspondent Randall Pinkston in Baghdad.

ABC was the last network to break into primetime at 10:25 p.m., but because it was in the midst of “20/20” and had “Nightline” to follow, it was able to offer the most comprehensive coverage on network TV.

Shortly after anchor Elizabeth Vargas read the news at 10:25 p.m., “20/20” made the jarring switch from a shot of Nicole Ritchie’s emaciated body to a packaged report on Hussein. ABC’s “Nightline” ditched its planned line-up for a pre-taped Hussein retrospective, which tracked his rise from poverty to become Iraq’s strongman.

After the initial report, networks stood by waiting for the images, which they expected to be grisly. When the images finally came from Al-Arabiya, shortly after 3 a.m, network execs screened it expecting the worst.

In the end, the video showed the final preparations, Hussein being led onto the gallows, and a noose being tightened around his neck, but did not show the hanging. Because little editing was required, CNN and Fox News Channel began airing the video shortly after 3 a.m. EST. Network TV aired the video on their Saturday morning news shows.

Later, nets received a video of Hussein’s face, which zoomed in and showed his broken neck. Most networks decided to air the wide shot as a still image, rather than the whole tape.