On TV, death watch for dictator

Times Staff Writer

Predictions went from “today or tomorrow” to “in the next hours” to “by all accounts very soon” to “any moment now.” Finally, it appeared that Saddam Hussein would die during “Larry King Live.”

“Are a lot of people in Iraq going to miss him?” King asked colleague John Roberts.

Let no stone go unturned. Except this: Would American television networks, cable or broadcast, show the actual event? Would there be video?

A CBS news official was quoted expressing squeamishness; others, like CNN, Fox News and NBC, were taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. Networks used the prospect of footage to create an all-day “Dead Man Walking” scenario, as day became night became the morning call for prayer in Baghdad.


It was said that the execution would be filmed but not broadcast live on Iraqi TV, which has shown other executions, though some form of videotape of the Hussein hanging would be released, to affirm what many in the Arab world perhaps needed to see to believe.

On Al Jazeera English, journalist Nir Rosen was asked whether Iraqis would be glued to their sets waiting for news of the despot’s death. “I think most Iraqis don’t have electricity,” Rosen noted dryly, “and their televisions don’t work.”

On cable news Friday, there was this weird, almost macabre, juxtaposition -- news shows cutting between President Ford, lying in state in Palm Desert, and breathless coverage of when Hussein would be executed.

It’s hard to remember, but the capture of a disheveled Hussein from his hole in the ground in Tikrit was a remarkable image. But his death, in its immediate moments, would be something else -- a coda of sorts that analysts predicted would be quickly forgotten.


The issue of the unfairness of Hussein’s trial was getting pointed coverage on Al Jazeera English. Meanwhile, after the execution was announced, CNN’s Anderson Cooper assured viewers that the network would be judicious before splashing any imagery on the screen. It’s this same judiciousness on an everyday basis that keeps the war distant, troubling and out of focus.