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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
US media eschews horror video
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

 Philadelphia Daily News cover
The Philadelphia Daily News was clear in its condemnation of the murder
Iraq's Pandora's Box of horrific images continues to spit out its contents - this time with the beheading of US civilian Nick Berg by suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.

A family's worst nightmare was played out on an Islamic website as video footage of his murder was made available for all to see.

In it the 26-year-old from Pennsylvania was forced to the ground by his hooded captors, who then slowly sawed off his head, their victim's screams mingling with shouts of "God is great".

When four US civilian contractors were lynched by a Falluja mob in March, American news editors were forced into making difficult decisions about whether to air footage of the attacks - but this time little deliberation was needed.

It is a pretty clear call for us... the viewer will understand what happened to Mr Berg... they won't have to sit through the graphic images
Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight

Every major US news network decided that the beheading was simply too gruesome to show and all refused to broadcast it.

Fox News, CBS, NBC and ABC all broadcast footage of the bound and frightened American seated on the floor surrounded by five masked men, but they stopped the tape at the point the knife was drawn.

"It's a pretty clear call for us," Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight, said. "I think the viewer will understand what happened to Mr Berg. They won't have to sit through the graphic images."

Communicating the horror

But while they refused to air the video, news editors were insistent that the American public be told of the true nature of what did happen next - and be made to understand that this was no swift death.

''I talked to every one of my anchors,'' Phil Griffin, vice president of MSNBC, told the Miami Herald. "I said, 'You're going to have to describe it in a way that captures just how horrible it is... This is something we should not sanitise when we describe it.' ''

Michael Berg is comforted by his son David at their house in Chester, Pennsylvania
Berg's father was overcome when he heard of the video tape

Many newscasters likened it to the video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's beheading in 2002. In that case, snippets of the video while the victim was still alive were also shown, but none of the actual killing.

Meanwhile, newspaper editors were also grappling with what they should and should not show in the next morning's editions.

Tabloid anger

On the whole they came to the same conclusion as the TV networks and, like BBC News Online, showed the image of Mr Berg surrounded by his captors before his killing.

There's so much impact in seeing him helplessly sitting there, it sent shivers down my spine... I didn't need to have it in my face
Peter Koeleman, Star Tribune photography director

Most showed the image of Mr Berg surrounded by his captors, but passed up on the grainy stills of the attack and of his severed head, preferring to allow their text to communicate the brutality of the attack.

"There's so much impact in seeing him helplessly sitting there, it sent shivers down my spine. I didn't need to have it in my face," Peter Koeleman, director of photography at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis explained.

Tabloids like the Daily News and New York Post vented their spleen in dramatic headlines with words like "Pure Evil", "Revenge", "Savages" or even in the case of the Philadelphia Daily News "Bastards."

Father's pain

Many front covers eschewed the video entirely, running instead the less sickening, but equally saddening image of Mr Berg's father Michael collapsing in tears upon hearing of the video's existence.

Mr Berg's parents knew that their son had been beheaded, but all hope that he had not suffered was destroyed by the video.

It seems that every week the US public is sent reeling by some new shocking image - be it the flag draped coffins of US servicemen filling the hold of a transport plane, the charred torso of a civilian contractor dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates, or of course the terrible pictures of Iraqi prisoners being physically and sexually humiliated at the hands of US forces.

And there is talk of worse to come.

Political fallout

The White House has rejected any link between the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and the beheading of Mr Berg, but some commentators appear to disagree. Some may even hope that Mr Berg's death will deflect US public outrage away from the Abu Ghraib scandal.

But the constant stream of bad news is taking its toll, starting to dent President George W Bush's support.

According to a recent poll by CNN/USA Today, the number of people who think Mr Bush is doing a better job of handling the Iraq conflict than presidential candidate John Kerry would has slipped from 54% in March to 48% in April.

The reality is that domestic policy usually trumps foreign policy when it comes to election time - but if the Iraq crisis is still front page news by the time November comes around Mr Bush might find dipping polls turning into marching orders.

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