Saddam Hussein has adopted a clear strategy for his trial on charges of crimes against humanity stemming from his decades-long rule of Iraq. He planned on diverting attention from the crimes and the evidence of them by focusing the world's attention on his political rants from the dock. Perhaps Saddam studied the Nuremberg trial of Hermann Goering, who manipulated court proceedings to both heighten his stature in the Nazi movement and to diminish the stature of the court in the eyes of ordinary Germans. Goering achieved limited success with this strategy because the Allies and the media extensively published the evidence of the atrocities of the Third Reich. In the end, Goering took his own life and history rightly remembers him as a monster.
If Saddam has calculated that the Goering gambit will work better for him, he may be right. Saddam is betting that his disruptions will play better than the evidence and testimony of genocide, which is so lacking in entertainment value. According to a study performed by the Media Research Center (MRC), the media is playing right into Saddam's strategy. After reviewing the coverage provided by the three American broadcast networks, MRC calculated that less than twenty percent of the news coverage reported on evidence, testimony, and the background of the case--when they could be bothered to cover the trial at all:
Saddam's trial has been mentioned in just 64 stories (including brief anchor-read items) over the last 5 months. Total coverage amounted to just under 90 minutes. The CBS Evening News offered the most coverage (21 stories, 34 minutes) followed by ABC's World News Tonight (23 stories, 30 minutes). NBC Nightly News aired the least: 20 stories amounting to 25 minutes of coverage, barely five minutes per month.
In contrast, the first six months of O.J. Simpson's murder trial garnered 431 stories (824 minutes) from those same networks, a 1994 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found. Simpson was accused of killing two people; Saddam is thought responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
When American forces pulled Saddam out of his spider hole in December 2003, coverage of the event spanned the entire day. Americans clearly wanted to know how Saddam would be detained, represented, tried, and punished for his crimes. However, interest in Saddam's fate waned during the long hiatus between his capture and the beginning of his trial. This, compounded by the frequent adjournments of the trial once it finally got underway, has led the networks to devote little time to the story. And of the ninety minutes of total broadcast-network air time dedicated to Saddam's trial over the past six months, only 11.5 minutes focused on actual testimony and evidence.
By contrast, the Big Three spent 12 minutes discussing the difficulties of providing the genocidal tyrant a fair trial. Saddam's courtroom disruptions have accounted for a third of the news coverage of his trial, accounting for thirty of the ninety minutes. That means that about half of the coverage (42 of 90 minutes) given by the networks has been devoted to Saddam's strategy of diversion as well as concern over his treatment by the victims of his oppression.
Saddam has played his hand well, but he has one advantage that Goering never had--an American media so poorly managed that it easily lends itself to this kind of manipulation. The trial has shown detailed evidence and produced compelling testimony to support the charges against Saddam--Saddam even admitted that he had ordered the executions of 148 residents of Dujail, though only ABC thought this worthy of complete coverage. That confession received only eighteen seconds of coverage at CBS, though that still managed to more than double NBC's paltry 7 seconds.
Can anyone wonder why the American public mistrusts the mainstream media? The trial of a dictator like Saddam Hussein by those he victimized is history in the making. Reporters should be clamoring to cover the proceedings, and cable news shows should have panel discussions every day poring over the evidence presented. The trial gives the world an opportunity to understand the scope and brutality of Saddam's regime. Yet the journalistic corps we have today finds itself more fascinated with Saddam's eating habits, and broadcasters are more likely to translate his political speeches from the dock rather than the testimony of his victims on the stand.
Thanks to the media establishment, we are missing the opportunity of a lifetime. In fact, considering the manner in which Saddam ruled, we are missing the opportunity provided by the gruesome destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. History will deliver a harsh verdict on Saddam Hussein, and will not be kind to the strange priorities of the American media either.
Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.