Television networks and other news outlets have had their hands full this New Year's Eve as the video of Saddam's execution has emerged and producers and management are left trying to strike a balance between 'reporting the whole story' without being tasteless.
Meanwhile an execution video, recorded on a cell phone, is shown in full on Arab television stations and was uploaded in it's entirety to sites such as the Something Awful forums, the Drudge Report, YouTube and Netscape.
The question of whether to allow the video on Netscape was an interesting one for me since, as some of you know, I work there. That particular decision fell solely to the General Manager after another member uploaded the content, and he chose not to remove or censor it, stating that it "depicts violence with journalistic merit, as Saddam Hussein's execution is a historic event." The video quickly garnered over 160,000 views in less than a day's time, doubling Michael Richard's racist tirade as the most watched video ever on the site. Over at YouTube, users have flagged the video seen over 40,000 times as graphic, though administrators have chosen, as they usually do, not to not pull the content. MSNBC has reportedly served up its version of the execution nearly 3 million times on Saturday alone.
At MSNBC.com, Editor-in-chief Jennifer Sizemore notes that while some footage of Saddam is shown "There is footage that we are not publishing: We believe you count on us to maintain standards and consistency in our coverage." CNN also takes the same route, showing images and video before and after Hussein's death, but not the act itself. Most other news networks outside of the Middle East have adopted similar before/after rules.
Hussein's execution is no doubt an event of historic importance. There is no question of the atrocities Saddam committed for decades while in power, and that he was afforded a trial by his peers prior to his execution speaks volumes. There are, however, many other videos of journalistic merit that never gain media coverage, such as the beheading of kidnapped American Nick Berg in 2004, as noted by the Hollywood Reporter.
For many deep-rooted cultural reasons, Iraqis would need to see proof of Hussein's execution. Indeed, many in the Iraqi public did not believe the death of Hussein's sons until the images of their corpses were made public. What reasoning, though, is there for wanting to see Hussein's execution outside of Iraq, what purpose does it serve? Would the global community not believe Saddam was dead otherwise? Doubtful. Saddam was a bad man, who received an execution far more humane than the ones he dealt out... but he was still a man, and a video of someone being killed/executed is quite tasteless no matter what their notoriety.
Where does the line fall once broadcasting/circulating a video of a person's execution becomes 'okay?' If there were a presidential sex of Clinton back in his Lewinsky days, would that become okay to publish? It was after all, a historic event, the perjury of which caused Clinton to be impeached. Surely sex acts aren't more offensive than watching someone die.
The New York Times published a roundup of media coverage for Saddam's execution.
As the deadline loomed, and commentators filled time with pronouncements like "the clock is ticking on Saddam Hussein," even on-air personalities looked restless. After devoting his entire hour on CNN to the impending hanging, Larry King asked, "Is there something ghoulish about this?" Mr. King looked a little let down when he had to sign off before the execution, promising viewers, "It is really imminent now."
So back to the original question, is it journalism or voyeurism? Apparently it's both.
I've chosen not to link to these videos deliberately; they're out there and if you want to view them, you can find them easily enough.