Fox, CNN execs differ sharply on horrific ISIS images

Fox website embeds video of Isis burning pilot. Is that good for democracy?

To show or not to show the horrific images from an ISIS video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive  -- that's the decision cable news executives were faced with this week. 

And Fox and CNN, the number one and two rated cable news channels, respectively, took decidedly different paths -- just as was done last month in the decision whether to show images of the Prophet Muhammad in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Executives from CNN and Fox explained their decisions on the ISIS video in interviews with The Sun Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Fox News showed its TV viewers a still photograph of Mouath al-Kasaesbeh with the lower part of his body engulfed in flames. The cable channel also embedded on its website the ISIS video of al-Kasaesbeh being burned to death in a cage.

One of the images at the top of the Fox homepage late Wednesday was al-Kasaesbeh standing in the cage with the flames about to reach his feet.

There were clear warnings of the graphic and horrific nature of the images in each case -- ranging from the still photograph shown on Bret Baier's show Tuesday night, to the embedded video.

On the other hand, CNN showed no still or video images of the burning -- nor did it embed or link to the ISIS video.

The one thing Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, and John Moody, the executive vice president and executive editor of Fox News, agreed on is the video being one of the worst things the veteran news executives have ever seen.

"I hope it's the worst thing I ever see, but I'm not sure, given the kind of animals we're facing now, that it will be," Moody said in a telephone interview. "It is certainly, in my view, a new low in human degradation."

"I am in the unfortunate position of being one of the people who watch a lot of video like this," Maddox said. "And this is the most troubling thing I have seen. ... We have seasoned, experienced people here who were visibly upset by this."

But beyond that, the disagreements are sharp.

"So, there's no reason to inflict that on people," Maddox says. "There is no reason in terms of the narrative drive of this story or the editorial context to show those pictures."

Maddox concedes that "some stories are very difficult to describe" without pictures.

"But this story is very easy to describe," he added. "And the simplest description is absolutely shocking. The man was put into a metal cage, then he was set on fire and burned alive. You get all you need to know from that."

Not so, said Moody. He believes that seeing and viscerally experiencing the video communicates a deeper sense than words of the evil that is ISIS. And that viewers should at least have the option of gaining that knowledge.

"I fear that we have become desensitized to descriptions of some things that are only in words," Moody said. "In this case, I think the act was so barbaric that it needs to be seen for the evil of it to be fully understood."

While Maddox said he can see how some might consider that a valid argument for showing an image or selected images on TV given proper warnings and context, it is one with which he ultimately disagrees, especially in terms of making the ISIS video readily available online.

"I think the problem with putting it on a website: You have no idea who can access a website. Anybody can access a website. Children can access a website," he said.

"This isn't an obscure part of the Internet," he said of mainstream cable websites like those of CNN or Fox. "It's not on a jihadi site. It's not in some deep, dark, special place. If it's on a mainstream news website, anybody can see it."

Moody's position: "We live these days in a way in which you can find anything," he said. "You can [find] video or pictures of anything, no matter how inspiring or unimaginably degrading. So, it's not a question of, 'Can we keep these depredations hidden?' We cannot."

As readers of this blog know, I am happy to praise one side and criticize another severely when it seems deserved. I am no fan of the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other school of journalism.

But, honestly, a solid argument can be made on each side in this case.

On the Fox side of the ledger, consider the social impact of TV viewers seeing horrific images from Vietnam at the dinner hour on CBS, NBC and ABC News. And they were horrific -- American GIs in battle with limbs blown off screaming for help. Vietnamese children dead on the groud.

Many people didn't want such images shown to the American public. But in a democracy, you don't make good choices without such information.

Or, in a minor way, consider the video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face last year. Though there were various conflicting accounts, voices within the NFL and Ravens hierarchy said Rice had told them of the punch, but until they saw the video they didn't understand the violence and horror of it.

The difference between the Rice and the ISIS videos is exponential. But the principle of words not communicating what an image can holds.

On the CNN side of the ledger, it is clearly in league with the majority of news organizations that chose not to show anything connected with the burning.

And there is the further argument Maddox made that by showing the video, CNN would have been serving the propagandist ends of ISIS, which wants the largest distribution it can get.

I can't speak for the public. I have been writing about such images for a long time, and I wanted to see the video. It was gruesome and deeply depressing.

But I wonder what readers and viewers felt. Did you want to see it? Did you see it? Do you think you can make an informed judgment as to how involved the U.S. should or shouldn't be in going after ISIS without seeing it?

 

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