Media Grapples With Hussein Sons’ Corpse Photos

By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer

(AP) Television networks barely hesitated to air bloody photos of the corpses of Saddam Hussein’s sons Thursday, while newspaper editors grappled with whether and how to print the pictures, knowing many readers already had seen them on TV or on the Internet.

The cable news networks — CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC — aired the pictures repeatedly after release, with the frequency decreasing as the day wore on. In some cases, viewers were warned of the pictures’ graphic nature in time to turn away, if they wanted to.

“If it’s the biggest story in the world today, how do we not cover it?” asked Jerry Nachman, MSNBC’s editor in chief. “If it’s television, how do we not air it?”

ABC, CBS, and NBC did not break into normal programming to show the pictures, but were showing them during regularly scheduled newscasts.

“It comes down to newsworthiness,” said Kevin Courtney, spokesman for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and its Web site in Fort Lauderdale. “We put a warning [on the Web site] advising users that it had graphic content. The decision was based on newsworthiness.”

Older brother Odai appeared in two photos, his face pockmarked with blood stains and a large gash. Qusai’s face was less bloody, but had bruises around the eyes. On MSNBC, corpse pictures were run side-by-side with file photos taken when the two men were living.

Fox News Channel ran the pictures with a series of captions: “Qusay was nicknamed the snake” and “Uday had women molested in front of nightclub audiences.”

The Associated Press immediately sent the pictures out on its Photostream wire with an editor’s note about the graphic nature, said Lew Wheaton, administrative director of AP Photos. The photo wire goes to thousands of newspapers, Web sites, and television stations.

There were no complaints from editors, Wheaton said. An editor’s note about graphic content is not uncommon; it is used on AP photos about 20 times a day. The Hussein photos “are not all that terribly graphic. We’ve run other images before that are more graphic,” Wheaton said.

In El Paso, Texas, home base for the 507th Maintenance Company, which lost 11 soldiers in an ambush in southern Iraq, Photo Editor Ruben Ramirez of the El Paso Times said the paper had a special obligation to keep the troops informed about news from the war.

Ramirez said he intended to run the photos in the paper the same way they appeared on the newspaper’s web site, with a warning about their graphic nature. “They’re informative, and everyone has a right to know,” Ramirez said. “It has to be a morale booster for all the soldiers at Fort Bliss,” where the 507th is based, Ramirez added. “They have to feel some sense of pride knowing that all that work paid off.”

At USA Today, editors planned to run a Page One photo of Iraqis watching the images being displayed on television. Small photos of the dead sons will run inside the paper along with a story about the decision on whether to release them, said Executive Editor Brian Gallagher.

“Obviously the photos are repulsive, but just as obviously the reader won’t be able judge the story or the [U.S.] government’s decision to release them unless they’re published,” Gallagher said. “There really isn’t an option not to publish, the question is how.”

Editors at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida were debating where in the paper to run the photos. “When people see them on TV, they’re up for a few seconds, and you may be multitasking when you see them,” Editor Tim Franklin said. “They might not be emblazoned in your mind as they might be if you see them printed on a page. We’ve become conditioned to seeing graphic images on TV, and I think it’s more startling to see it printed on a newspaper page.”

Franklin noted that the photos of the dead bodies were already available on the Orlando Sentinel‘s Web page, but with a warning next to the link noting that they contained “graphic content.”

Other news sites also carried the photos, but often with warnings about their content and not immediately visible from the main home page. Web sites for The Washington Post and CNN carried the photos, for example, but with cautionary notes to viewers.

USAToday.com carried a prominent headline saying “U.S. releases photos of sons” at the top of its home page, above a link for “Full coverage” and “Photos” with a warning of “graphic images.” Even after clicking on the “Photos” link, USAToday.com carried another stark warning on a small all-black screen, saying “Editor’s warning: Photos contain graphic content.”

Karla Vallance, managing editor of csmonitor.com, the Web site for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, wasn’t running the photos. And she pooh-poohed the warnings others were putting up. “Often, when you have to put those warnings up, it’s a real question of whether you need to do it at all,” she said.

On MSNBC, executives had a brief “stutter-step” to examine the pictures before putting them on the air, Nachman said. He compared them to newspaper pictures printed of notorious crime figures after they were killed in the 1930s, and the picture of World War II Italian dictator Benito Mussolini strung up by his feet. Pictures of the Hussein brothers “are no worse than what your kids can see in any R-rated movie this summer,” Nachman said.

“While the images are somewhat gruesome, we have shown things at other times that are of the same nature,” ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “From a taste standpoint, we won’t hold back.”

Since the photos were made available to confirm a news event that had taken place on Tuesday, ABC didn’t consider it newsworthy enough to break into programming, he said.

Since it was a major story that many Iraqis questioned whether the men were actually dead, release of the photos should be reported, said Steve Capus, executive producer of NBC’s “Nightly News.”

By the evening, the photos would already be old news to many viewers, said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the “CBS Evening News.”

“If you haven’t seen them yet in today’s cable and Internet world, you’ve probably been asleep,” Murphy said.

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