Jesse Jackson's heavily hoopla'd debut as a journalist found the civil rights leader much more the story than the storyteller yesterday on the syndicated infotainment series "Inside Edition."
The first glimpse of Jackson's videotaped interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took up less than two minutes of the half-hour program, seen daily in Washington at 4 p.m. on WRC-TV (Channel 4).
Av Westin, executive producer of the show, said from New York late yesterday that cumulatively only from 15 to 18 minutes' worth of the interview will air during the four nights devoted to Jackson's visits to Kuwait City and Baghdad, although 90 minutes or more of interview footage was reportedly shot. In much of it, Westin indicated, Saddam was unresponsive or merely reiterated past statements.
King World, distributor of "Inside Edition," paid the $125,000 in expenses for Jackson's trip after other broadcast organizations had passed on the offer.
Jackson brought more than 200 hostages, including 47 Americans, with him when he left the Middle East. Not unexpectedly, much of the footage on "Inside Edition" was devoted to this considerable feat. At times the program looked like a campaign commercial: Elect Jesse Jackson to Whatever Office He's Running For at the Moment.
"A red-eyed and tearful Jackson ended the exodus with a prayer," reporter Kenneth Walker said reverently as the camera zoomed in on Jackson's moist eyes. Jackson was seen earlier at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, where, said anchor Bill O'Reilly, what he observed was "brutal" and "horrifying." But this did not come through on tape.
The one piece of news apparently elicited from Saddam during the interview was not captured by the camera, either -- or if it was, "Inside Edition" producers believe, it was censored by the Iraqis. As they did last week when Dan Rather of CBS News interviewed Saddam, the Iraqis insisted on providing the crew and equipment for the interview.
When they delivered the finished, edited tape to "Inside Edition," Westin said, 10 minutes was missing.
Reporters taking notes at the scene believe that the 10 deleted minutes may have included a section in which Saddam threatened to treat as "spies" any U.S. nationals still in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait who do not come out of hiding in the next 10 days.
Because Saddam also sat down for an hour with Jackson before cameras and microphones were turned on, observers at the scene are not certain whether the threat was taped or not, Westin said.
If the Iraqis did indeed edit the harangue out of the tape, it was probably because it would jar with the cuddly image of Papa Saddam they've tried to create in their clunky propaganda broadcasts.
Westin says he is aware that Jackson has his own political agenda and that for this reason, "the editorial control of the broadcast rests here," with Westin and his staff. Does he think Jackson is "soft" on Saddam, having suggested to anchor O'Reilly that the crisis not be blamed on just "one man"?
"I think he's strong," Westin said of Jackson. "I don't know if I can really answer that question."
As to the oft-asked question of whether Jackson is really a journalist, Westin said, "If Jesse Jackson were characterized as a journalist because he stood in the rain with a microphone or a pen and pencil, no way. But if you're talking about an individual well-briefed on a situation -- and he was -- who asks intelligent questions and follow-ups, in this case the definition of 'journalist' can be extended to cover what he did with Saddam Hussein."