Saddam Hussein was in court for only 26 minutes yesterday morning, but the TV news machine was in overdrive all day and into the night replaying, analyzing, interpreting and parsing every word and image.
Was he defiant, or did he seem more like a "broken man," as one reporter who was in the room in which Saddam was arraigned yesterday morning described him? Did he look more like the ruthless dictator we had been regularly seeing on our TV screens since the first Gulf War, or the ragged man found cowering in a spider hole in December? On all-news cable TV, the questions and talking-head answers stopped only for commercial messages.
As intense as it was, the coverage was warranted. As news, Saddam's trial is likely to play a crucial role in establishing (or not) the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government both in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. It also has important implications in an American election year as we debate the performance of the current administration in going to war with Iraq and then dealing with the aftermath of ousting Saddam.
But Saddam has also come to take on great symbolic importance in American life, thanks in large part to the way he has been covered on television. He's taken up residence in the American imagination almost like a character in a prime-time television drama. It is almost impossible not to stop and look when you see Saddam's familiar face back on the TV screen.
ABC News seemed to understand both the practical and symbolic importance of Saddam's court appearance better than anyone. ABC and CNN were first and second in getting on the air with live reports, ABC at 7:16 a.m. and CNN at 7:18 a.m. They were the only two television operations with reporters in the courtroom - anchorman Peter Jennings for ABC and correspondent Christiane Amanpour for CNN.
CNN went wall-to-wall with its coverage into the afternoon. But, by the standards of broadcast network television, ABC was just as committed, breaking into Good Morning America for live reports from Jennings and then videotape of Saddam's testimony as soon as it passed through military censors and became available (at 8:32 a.m.).
"We knew this was going to be a big story," Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC World News with Peter Jennings, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The world has not seen Saddam Hussein since he was pulled out of that hole. There's a great deal of intrigue surrounding him for a whole host of reasons." Banner said Saddam's appearance before an Iraqi judge appointed by the new government was seen within ABC News as a "major symbolic moment" for Iraqis, Arabs and Americans.
"Look, we went to war against this man. He is a very important figure, and what happens to him in the next few months through his trial is of great interest to people. So, it was only natural that once Peter was able to get into the room that we went on the air several times to explain what he looked like, what the proceedings were like, what his attitude was like."
The least aggressive network was NBC, which did not interrupt the Today Show to offer live reports or videotape of Saddam. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, who had been in Iraq to cover the transfer of power earlier in the week, was on his way back to the United States when Saddam arrived in court, according to Lauren Kapp, an NBC News spokeswoman.
NBC affiliates, like WBAL-TV in Baltimore, were not offered any live coverage of the arraignment during the Today Show except for reports by NBC correspondent Richard Engel during the usual newsbreaks on the hour and half-hour. NBC offered no videotape of Saddam's courtroom appearance during the Today Show broadcast from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., according to Wanda Draper, program director at WBAL, and Ro Dooley Webster, director of public relations at WHDH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Boston.
"Beyond everything else, I think it was just fascinating to hear and see Saddam as he re-emerged yesterday," ABC's Banner said. "I mean, just think how many times the president of the United States himself has mentioned the name Saddam Hussein. And, suddenly, there he was again."
Back on the television screen and center stage in American life.