The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th 2003 quickly became one of the enduring images of the war in Iraq. But it was a controversial moment; in a 2004 documentary, “Control Room”, Al-Jazeera reporters argued that the toppling was merely “a show … a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. This sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Times, citing an internal army report, and later by a New Yorker/ProPublica investigative report.
Since then, the issue had devolved into a series of he-said, she-said’s and it is hard to remember that it all happened only eight years ago, and all records are online and out there to review. Analysis of broadcast news with regards to this pivotal moment had been done before, but I would like to turn the focus here into how major news outlets covered it.
The BBC correspondent, who was in the square said, his impression was of “a newly free people” expressing their “overwhelming joy”. CNN’s coverage (in print at least) was monotonously factual: “A Marine draped the American flag over the head of the statue — a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network Al Arabiya.”
The newspapers’ coverage, perhaps because it was immediate, was effusive. The Times wrote, “It was a momentous day, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the communist empire in 1989. And no image of it will be more enduring than the toppling of that 20ft Saddam statue by a US tank egged on by a cheering, excited mob which then stamped with undisguised glee on the fallen idol.” The New York Times was equally enthusiastic: “Cheering ecstatically, a crowd of Iraqis danced and trampled on the fallen 20-foot high metal statue in contempt for the man who had held them in fear for so long. In scenes recalling the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraqis hacked at the statue’s marble plinth with a sledgehammer.” Meanwhile, the Guardian files in a confusing report.
The foreign press, according to BBC, was equally prone to sensationalism. Even the left-leaning Liberation says there were no regrets when the statue fell. Bild, too, made comparisons with the fall of other personality cults of Hitler and Stalin. Throughout the Arab World, however, TV coverage played down the fall of Baghdad, focusing on scenes of chaos and looting.
In the weeklies that were published a few days later, the tone became more tempered. The Economist noted “If the fall of a regime has a single moment of collapse, it came on April 9th.” But it also emphasized that “This was not the Berlin Wall. The crowd in the square was small.” Time magazine, too, echoed those sentiments, wryly dismissing TV stations’ more sentimental reporting.
It is my personal opinion that while the media did not deliberately exaggerate the events, its presence didn’t help either. Observation often changes the phenomenon being observed, and the toppling was perhaps a mere victim of this. While the original reportage was frenzied, I also think the subsequent accusations are equally cavalier.
The crowd was mostly reporters and journalists.