The Media Research Center released a report this week about how the mainstream media are "Covering Saddam's Shenanigans, Not His Crimes." The MRC reviewed every mention of the Saddam trial on the network nightly newscasts between October 16 and March 15 and "found the networks spent nearly three times as much airtime on Saddam's courtroom antics as on the serious testimony of his victims," according to Rich Noyes.
A few points about this. First, there doesn't seem to be much doubt about Saddam's guilt at this point. There have been many news reports about Saddam's time in power in Iraq, and it's pretty clear to almost all observers that he's responsible for some truly horrendous crimes. That's not to say Saddam does not deserve a trial. Even the worst criminals do. But from a news perspective, focusing on the evidence seems less important because many of his crimes have already been well documented.
At the same time, one could argue that what Saddam did – not his antics – are the real story here. There is something to that argument – I don't think anyone could claim that his crimes are less important or significant than his courtroom outbursts. But it shouldn't come as a surprise that his antics are what's getting most of the attention. Saddam is a compelling figure, one who has existed mostly at a distance for a long time, and the trial offers the best opportunity most Americans have ever had to see what he's really like.
In addition, as alluded to above, the trial, and Saddam's outbursts, are the story of the moment. His crimes have been reported for years. One could claim that the crimes have been insufficiently covered in the past, and that the trial marks an opportunity to make up for that. That's a subjective determination. But members of the media want stories that feel fresh, and there's very little evidence coming out of the trial that goes beyond the horrendous atrocities already documented.
That doesn't mean the networks can't, or shouldn't, focus on some of the compelling stories coming from the testimony. The media – and in particular the nightly newscasts – thrive on human interest stories, after all. And the trial has provided them. As Noyes mentions, on December 21 Ali al-Haydari talked about how he "heard screaming and shouting, then silence as a body came out in a blanket" when he was 14. CBS News did mention that testimony, but there has been other compelling testimony that has not been reported by the networks.
Ultimately what makes it on air comes down to the news judgment of reporters and producers. The MRC believes that we should be hearing more of the testimony in order to better understand how bad Saddam is, and how much he deserves punishment. But it should be noted that the MRC, a conservative organization, has an agenda, and making people think the worst of Saddam fits into that agenda. That's not to say that they're wrong, necessarily. But it is important to understand where they're coming from.
Groups like the MRC have long argued that the mainstream media has an agenda of its own, of course. If you think that's true, than you may well agree with the MRC's implicit conclusion that the press is playing down Saddam's atrocities in favor of his antics, presumably in order to push their liberal agenda. The difficulty is that when you're talking about an issue like this there's no easy way to determine whether or not that argument is true. People at the networks have to decide what's newsworthy, and all of us have different opinions about what should and shouldn't be news. We can debate the issue all we want, but the decisions about what to cover and not cover on any particular story are too fraught with variables to allow easy determinations about bias.