NEW YORK — U.S. news networks agreed to let the American military censor out certain images of Saddam Hussein’s court hearing Thursday in Baghdad, one in a bizarre series of events surrounding coverage of the session.
American and Iraqi officials did not want any footage shown of Iraqi guards or court personnel, and they asked broadcast and cable news nets to honor this request.
But the situation took an unexpected turn even before the hearing began, when U.S. officials ordered CNN and Al-Jazeera, the pool camera crews, to disconnect their audio equipment. Officials said it was the wish of the Iraqi judge.
Following the hearing, the CNN footage was taken to the convention center, where a CBS News employee transmitted the footage after it was viewed and okayed by two military censors.
As the silent footage of Hussein began to air on U.S. networks around 8:30 a.m. ET, CBS News anchor Dan Rather explained that the tapes had been “taken to another location, edited, and what you’re seeing is in effect a censored version” of what happened in court earlier today.
“And whether you will hear what happened in court is yet to be determined. We know that Saddam Hussein challenged the whole legitimacy of the court,” Rather said.
TV journalists were frustrated by the fact that there was no audio — at least initially. It turned out that some of the footage had ambient sound, albeit in Arabic.
It’s also possible that some of the footage was supplied by Dept. of Defense cameras, which were allowed to record sound. Throughout the day, several news nets said it wasn’t always clear which footage was from what source, and that it could have been DOD footage, meaning the Pentagon was directly controlling what was being heard.
The two U.S. military officials watching over the CNN footage being transmission ordered that some of the ambient sound be muted. However, other portions of CNN tapes with audio may have been allowed to go through.
News nets receiving the transmissions were alerted to the fact that authorities had ordered that there be no audio, and it was up to each individual net to decide whether to air that part of the video that had sound.
Some news editors spent hours scouring the portion of the tape with audio for harsh words leveled at President Bush by Saddam, but could not find the quote reported by New York Times reporter John Burns, who was the pool print reporter in the courtroom and accompanied by a translator. Burns reported that Saddam said, “Everyone knows that this is a theatrical comedy by Bush, the criminal, in an attempt to win the election.”
The only other Western journalists in the courtroom were ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
The Pentagon could not be reached for comment as to why it didn’t want any audio, or why it allowed some of the sound.
Besides CNN and the New York Times, an Al-Jazeera camera crew was allowed in the courtroom, as was a print reporter for Arab newspapers.
In planning for media coverage, U.S. officials used the phrase “perp walk” to describe Saddam’s arrival at the hearing.
Except for NBC, all the U.S. broadcast news divisions and cable news nets broke into normal programming to air the footage of Saddam. NBC News’ “Today” did not air the footage, a decision it later reversed for the West Coast feed. Instead, the East Coast edition of “Today” stuck to an interview with Robert Redford and, later, a shot of co-host Katie Couric playing badminton on Rockefeller Plaza.
“It was a mistake,” a spokeswoman for “Today” said.
The NBC affiliate in Boston temporarily dropped the network feed to air the courtroom footage.
The East Coast edition of “Today” did carry several live reports from Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel on the courtroom events. The network didn’t advise viewers to turn to sister cable news net MSNBC for continuing coverage, as it sometimes does during a breaking news story.