Saddam Cell Video Subverts News Packages

    by Mark Glaser
    January 8, 2007

    i-38002770a72678d2a956b1ae5b306dde-Saddam hanging video.jpg
    There’s a certain predictability and glossiness to news “packages,” special reports on breaking news that journalists knew were going to happen ahead of time. So when a pope dies after a long illness, the U.S. invades Iraq after a long runup to war, or the Democrats are sworn into power in Congress, you know there will be spiffy graphics, an on-the-scene reporter, and even an original musical intro on CNN.

    That’s what you might have expected regarding Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging that took place after a lengthy public trial and appeal. Sure enough, after the execution on Dec. 30, an official video was released to the media showing Hussein led to the gallows and a noose put around his neck. In years past, that’s what the public would have seen — a sanitized version of events edited for mainstream consumption.

    But instead, in the Internet Age, in the Age of YouTube, an uncensored video shot by a government official on the scene was uploaded to various video sites on the Net. On this uncut video, you can hear the audio of what Saddam was saying in his last seconds of life, and hear the insults hurled at him by political opponents. The scene is much more chaotic and much less scripted than in the official video. (And thanks to IraqSlogger.com, you can also read a partial English translation of what is being said in the video.)


    The consequences from that cell phone video were enormous, with protests breaking out in Iraqi cities and government officials being detained for videotaping the scene. But the video also upended the tidy news package for Saddam’s execution, and marked another important moment for the mainstream media (MSM) losing control of the daily news agenda.

    No longer could the MSM trot out the safe-for-viewing video of Saddam trying on the noose. Now there was an alternative viewpoint, a much more real viewpoint, out for free on the Internet to anyone who knew how to type in the words “Saddam execution video” on Google or Technorati or YouTube. In fact, today, nearly 10 days after the hanging, the search term “Saddam” is at #1 on Technorati’s most-searched-for terms, and “Saddam video” is at #3. Those people are not looking for safe, they’re looking for a slice of reality they couldn’t get unedited on the evening news.

    Time and time again, the Internet has served as a repository for real life unedited, whether it’s the beheading video of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan or celebrity sex videos on the beach or the personal contact details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault accuser. (Note: These links go to news stories and not actual videos or direct information.)


    Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that all this unedited material is good for us, psychologically. Having a more direct view of the Saddam hanging might give us a clearer, truer picture of the event, but it also is partially responsible for the death of at least seven children who hung themselves in copycat hangings. As the filtering power of the MSM lessens, the parental and personal filters of all of us must be strengthened. More than ever, we need to have better media literacy, know what is out there for us to see, and choose wisely in what we see and what conclusions we make.

    The genie is out of the bottle, and traditional media will not be able to take away the video and camera power of millions upon millions of cell phones in the hands of so many potential eyewitnesses. Rather than fight against the tide, the MSM will have to learn to deal with a new news agenda being set by average people who are at the scene of news as it happens. There will still be a place for professional journalists to provide context and explain what we are seeing in these videos and these photos.

    But the days of the carefully planned news packages are nearing an end. Even when Saddam was buried, an unofficial video surfaced showing another chaotic, politically charged scene. For every manufactured and manicured news package of the future, we can expect a few citizen journalists to surface with the raw details — what BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis calls news served raw.

    Not everyone wants to believe that the world has changed or that the MSM’s grip on power is loosening. Check out this editorial, The zone of faith will save us from the sovereignty of the mob, by the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, which concludes like this:

    There is no substitute for a disciplined, rule-bound, edited news-gatherer any more than there is for a formal theatre, movie-maker or publisher. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” will not find its apotheosis in the Internet. The message transcends the medium and always will. The fact that a reader’s taste can sometimes be shocked shows the power of the trust on which it is normally based.

    But you only have to look down as far as the reader comments below the editorial to see how much the world — and personal opinion — is turning away from the journalist-as-high-priest oldthink. Here’s part of the first comment from reader peters2000:

    Jenkins’s piece is inspired by Saddam’s hanging, so let us look at the reality. There were of course two videos of the event made.The first was the officially sanctioned version — tastefully edited to spare us too much anguish. The second was the raw version. The trouble is, the first version was a propaganda lie, and the second version was the truth. If Jenkins wants to eat his cornflakes while reading lies that is up to him. Personally I don’t.

    The reason why newspapers are in headlong retreat in the face of the Internet is because they persist in publishing the politically approved version of events, when for more and more of us, it becomes ever easier to check the sources. Newspapers are dying, because they are losing credibility.

    What do you think? Are cell phone videos upending the approved news agenda, and is that a good thing? How important was the Saddam cell phone video in the history of media, and do you think mainstream media should have shown more or less of the video? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: cellphones journalism photography politics videos
    • One would think that those who thought Saddam’s hanging was a good thing would be happy about everyone getting a chance to see the video of it. They should be proud that the world got to see this “wonderful” event. But wait, just the opposite seems to be true. If they are so proud of it and believe it to be so just, then what’s their problem with the video? Or is it that perhaps that they, like the rest of us, understand the inherent cruelty in handing a man, no matter how evil, over to a sectarian goon squad to be lynched?

    • The Saddam hanging video is historic in that, if we chose, we could actually see the death of someone whose actions were equated with those of Hitler.

      But I don’t think the reason lots of people viewed it had as much to do with the historic implications of the video…and we don’t really know if those who filmed it were thinking at that moment. Their reasons for filming it may have had less to do with the people’s need to know than a desire to simply feed a machine that thrives on morbid curiosity and “guess what I just watched!” pop culture bragging rites…an odd, ego feeding of being The One who provided the “information.”

      I think, though, there’s bit of hyperbole in your post re the airing of the Saddam video being “responsible” for the hanging deaths of seven children. Back in the 70’s, media criticts would often find examples of children who imitated actions in violent cartoons and say that the cartoons were responsible for the children’s death. One single source does not cause a child to act on what he/she sees in a video. Rather, there are cultural and homelife conditions–even if those conditions are sheer neglect of the child’s viewing habits–that effect a child’s decision. I would not think that the deaths of these seven children should increase calls for censorship inasmuch as they are a signal that we more in the way of media literacy, as much as we need more parental supervision of imagery and a simple turning off of our ubiquitous machinery.

      But will that happen?? doubt it. We like our media dreams–even when they’re horrid nightmares.

    • Mark, you’re absolutely right, the new style of “news served raw” is becoming the norm, and in the process upending the formal news process. Also add in newspapers’ business model being undermined by younger readers’ preference to get their information via the web and one wonders what will happen to all official MSM news outlets.

      It’s ironic that we’re discussing the end of news packaging on a PBS blog; I can envision a day in the not too distant future where agencies such as AP, Bloomberg, the BBC and Reuters are the primary generators of news content, serving thousands upon thousands of interpreters from newspapers to anonymous, independent bloggers.

      As newrooms and networks continue to cut reporters, perhaps this future is right around the corner. Whether this is a bad thing or not depends on your age, your point of view, and your access to online resources.

    • Tish,
      I agree with you about not making the hanging video totally responsible for the hanging of the children in copycat acts. But I couldn’t say “not responsible at all” because I still think that the media landscape and what’s in it — violence, sex, ideology — does affect who we are and how we see the world. That’s why I stuck with “partially responsible” and mentioned that parental filters and involvement are really key.

      Margaret, it’s true that newspapers’ print model is being undermined by new media usage, but also keep in mind that the newspaper companies do operate some of the most trafficked news web sites. So it’s not like they are being shut out of the online game. They are there, but need to make this a real priority and change their top-down model of newsgathering if they are going to really change with the times. We’ll see what they do…

    • Doug Powers

      What proof is there that, even maybe, the raw news was responsible for the deaths of the children? I think it is more logical to say that when children see the fluff news coverage showing just the noose fitting that the children had no clue as to the end result of putting a noose around your neck. Other than if you put a noose around your neck the news report could be seen in school.However if they saw that after you put a noose around your neck, you will die. Were the parents responsible for letting the child see the raw coverage, were the parents responsible for letting the child put the noose around their neck, were the parents responsible for anything? I guess the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
      As far as the number of hits the raw news recieves can only be an indicator of the number of people wanting to know the truth and not what the media wants us to know. We are tired of being lied to.
      Or maybe it’s the money that causes journalism to cry foul when a storey is scooped away without an exclusive.

    • I think the link to the page with video footage of Saddam Husseins execution by hanging could have been omitted. Anyone truly interested in seeing graphic footage of a man being killed doesn’t really need a link from the PBS site, do they? That’s what google is for, right?

    • It’s very simple: Out in the hinterland, there are many “Passionate Experts”. You do not have to be a professional journalist to be an expert.

      The Internet and other technologies have given these Passionate Experts the tools to express their opinions.

      In 1987, President Reagan declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Well, now, bit by bit, the established institutions of the world are experiencing the same thing as the Berlin Wall.

    • Newspapers and their companion websites have a duty to loyal readers who expect a certain level of editing/sanitation. These readers may be older, or they may be parents who ‘don’t like that sort of thing lying round the house’. Newspapers cannot go hell-for-leather after ‘news is raw’ next-generation readers withour suffering consequences. The answer must be for newspapers to signpost readers to raw footage whlst warning them that the subject matter may be disturbing and not suitable for children.

    • tia

      i think that all of this is bullshit yea so he got hung. why dont you dumb mother fuckers give him some respect and stop fucking talking about it. thats the way he was raisd and brought up.. he was really messes up in the head but just leave it alone its done and over with and thats where it should stay at.

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