Covering Saddam’s Shenanigans, Not His Crimes
The Media Research Center recently released a study of the television coverage of the Saddam Hussein trial, aptly entitled “Covering Saddam’s Shenanigans, Not His Crimes.”
In spite of a record equal to some of the worst tyrants in human history, reporters found Saddam’s personal reactions and orchestrated antics more compelling than the witness testimony against him. The networks gave Saddam’s behavior more airtime than any other topic — nearly 30 minutes, one-third of the coverage.
In contrast, the networks allotted just 11½ minutes for witness testimony and evidence, just slightly below the nearly 12 minutes devoted to suggestions Saddam would not get a fair hearing. On the Oct. 18 World News Tonight, ABC’s Jim Sciutto pointed out how “human rights groups doubt the former dictator will get a fair trial.” On March 15, after Saddam’s testimony was cut off by the judge, ABC showed complaints from 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.”
The MRC puts this in the context of press bias against the Iraq War and notes that it is undoubtedly hurting President Bush: “With the Iraq war now three years old, one of its main achievements — the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s mass-murdering dictatorship — has been largely shunted to the sidelines.” Further, they contrast this coverage with that of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Saddam’s trial has been mentioned in just 64 stories (including brief anchor-read items) over the last 5 months. Total coverage amounted to just under 90 minutes. The CBS Evening News offered the most coverage (21 stories, 34 minutes) followed by ABC’s World News Tonight (23 stories, 30 minutes). NBC Nightly News aired the least: 20 stories amounting to 25½ minutes of coverage, barely five minutes per month.
In contrast, the first six months of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial garnered 431 stories (824 minutes) from those same networks, a 1994 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found. Simpson was accused of killing two people; Saddam is thought responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The problem with such analysis, however, is that it presumes that the nightly network news shows [Does anyone still watch those? -ed.] are in the business of covering what’s important than what the audience finds interesting. The Simpson trial got an absurd amount of coverage, not because the murder of a socialite and a waiter are all that extraordinary but because O.J. Simpson was a pop culture phenomenon and there were many interesting characters surrounding the trial. Were the networks to televise a commensurate level of coverage of the Saddam trial, they would do so to no audience.
It is true, however, that there is a herd mentality in journalism and that stories are covered based on how they fit into that script. (See Christopher Hitchens‘ recent comments on that subject.) The inability of two judges to reign in a defendant fit into the allegory of a country in chaos nicely. It was also, quite frankly, rather entertaining.
It should be noted, too, that the fact Saddam was a brutal dictator who ordered hundreds if not thousands of his subjects executed is not in serious dispute even among critics of the war. (Although, as Hitchens notes, there are a handful of apologists who seem to forget that fact.) And it should be noted that there was not a lot of coverage of the Milosovik trial in the Hague, either. And the networks spent the better part of the 1990s building the image of him as a monster.
So, yes, the media have numerous biases and, yes, those biases have an impact on the public’s perceptions of the world. But everything is not a conspiracy to discredit President Bush, either.