CBS Public Eye Site Reviews MRC Report On TV's Fixation on Saddam Trial Antics

Over at the CBS News blog Public Eye, Brian Montopoli broke down the Rich Noyes Media Reality Check on the trial of Saddam Hussein. Montopoli seems to be missing a major point of Rich's: that the very trial itself is newsworthy in that it demonstrates the difference between the political system under Saddam and the political system in Iraq today, which instead of merely slaughtering Saddam in two minutes -- the way he often conducted business -- Iraq is attempting to create a rule of law:

First, there doesn't seem to be much doubt about Saddam's guilt at this point. There have been many news reports about Saddam's time in power in Iraq, and it's pretty clear to almost all observers that he's responsible for some truly horrendous crimes. That's not to say Saddam does not deserve a trial. Even the worst criminals do. But from a news perspective, focusing on the evidence seems less important because many of his crimes have already been well documented.

At the same time, one could argue that what Saddam did – not his antics – are the real story here. There is something to that argument – I don't think anyone could claim that his crimes are less important or significant than his courtroom outbursts. But it shouldn't come as a surprise that his antics are what's getting most of the attention. Saddam is a compelling figure, one who has existed mostly at a distance for a long time, and the trial offers the best opportunity most Americans have ever had to see what he's really like.

In addition, as alluded to above, the trial, and Saddam's outbursts, are the story of the moment. His crimes have been reported for years. One could claim that the crimes have been insufficiently covered in the past, and that the trial marks an opportunity to make up for that. That's a subjective determination. But members of the media want stories that feel fresh, and there's very little evidence coming out of the trial that goes beyond the horrendous atrocities already documented.

It's also sort of odd in that the Saddam trial has garnered much less network attention that the sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib, and the networks didn't seem to have too much doubt about guilt of everyone from the soldiers stationed there up to and including Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush. What liberals like Montopoli suggest implicitly or explicitly is the idea that offenses committed by democratic regimes are more newsworthy since democratic regimes aim for a higher standard of conduct that tinhorn dictatorships. Montopoli tries to make concessions to the Noyes study:

That doesn't mean the networks can't, or shouldn't, focus on some of the compelling stories coming from the testimony. The media – and in particular the nightly newscasts – thrive on human interest stories, after all. And the trial has provided them. As Noyes mentions, on December 21 Ali al-Haydari talked about how he "heard screaming and shouting, then silence as a body came out in a blanket” when he was 14. CBS News did mention that testimony, but there has been other compelling testimony that has not been reported by the networks.

Ultimately what makes it on air comes down to the news judgment of reporters and producers. The MRC believes that we should be hearing more of the testimony in order to better understand how bad Saddam is, and how much he deserves punishment. But it should be noted that the MRC, a conservative organization, has an agenda, and making people think the worst of Saddam fits into that agenda. That's not to say that they're wrong, necessarily. But it is important to understand where they're coming from.

Groups like the MRC have long argued that the mainstream media has an agenda of its own, of course. If you think that's true, than you may well agree with the MRC's implicit conclusion that the press is playing down Saddam's atrocities in favor of his antics, presumably in order to push their liberal agenda...[but] the decisions about what to cover and not cover on any particular story are too fraught with variables to allow easy determinations about bias.

Tim Graham's picture

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