When Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, known as "Judge Blood," appropriated the charred remains of eight American serviceman as props in yet another Iranian-controlled media event over the weekend, he provoked such a collective disgust in the three American television networks that they each, independently, decided not to show most of the performance to the American people.
In a crisis that has relied heavily on television, and to some extent the printed media, for sustenance, the introduction of the actual death of Americans, rather than mere threat of it, and the inflammatory aftermath in Tehran, raised additional questions about the role of the press in presenting news events.
At issue in this case were scenes of Khalkhali at the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, ordering the wrappings on the corpses slit open, poking at them or ordering a revolutionary guard to poke at them with a knife. A piece of jawbone was held aloft at one point; a set of dog tags at another. Khalkhali hefted a blackened arm to show a wristwatch on it to the Iranians and foreign journalists who had been invited there, according to witnesses.
These grisly scenes followed a set of pictures and descriptions from the scene of Thursday's fiery collision in the desert where the rescue attempt had ended, showing the grotesquely burned and twisted bodies lying among the rotors and engines, still wearing helmets, one with hands raised in a clutching motion.
The consensus among editors seemed to be that distance shots were more permissible than close-ups, and that word descriptions were more suitable than any pictures where such horrifying events are involved.
"Good taste" was the most commonly cited standard in interviews with network representatives and newspaper and wire service editors.
Scenes of the ritual abuse of the bodies by the Iranians got a different order of consideration than did the merely macabre plane crash scenes.
"I think the feeling of our correspondent [Rick Davis] was that this was such an outrageous act that we should show the depths they were going to," said Ed Planer, vice president in charge of news coverage for NBC.
"But, I think that because of restrained editing, the rough scenes were done with taste, so that you didn't feel you were watching anything highly distasteful. I mean, the whole thing was distasteful, but within the parameters" of the event.
The editing of the more gruesome scenes, he said, was done by network editors in Tehran, so that it never reached the United States. And some of the scenes probably were never filmed at all, he said. The scene of the dismembered arm, for example. "There's no way a scene like that would have been shown on our air. . . . It's a question of simple good taste."
All three networks took viewers through the staged display of American paraphernalia at the embassy compound, and showed Iranians holding handkerchiefs to their noses to block the stench of putrefying flesh. But as Khalkhali led the assemblage to the bodies and ordered the revolutionary guard to uncover them, the scenes ended. The correspondents had been instructed to announce that what followed would not be shown. In some cases a brief oral description was given instead.
"After a while of filming some of this stuff, they had just got sick of it and retreated, filmed the crowd . . . from a distance," said one newsman in Tehran of an NBC network crew.
Despite network and newspaper restraint, some citizens were offended by the coverage.
After ABC broke into Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" about 1:15 Saturday afternoon to show early footage of the wreckage and the charred bodies left lying in the desert, seven people called WJLA-TV (Channel 7), ABC's affiliate here, to complain. (That footage, as a network representative pointed out, had been shot by Iranian television crews and sold to the networks.)
About 150 calls came in to Channel 7 Sunday night after the network aired footage of the display at the compound, some from outraged viewers who thought they had seen charred bodies on their screens, even though the network claims it stopped short of that.
In a broader context, however, that reaction is mild. The station reports it got 400 calls from viewers upset that the air time of a movie, "Lady Sings the Blues," had been an hour off in the TV guides.
At the Trenton Times, managing editor Larry Kramer said, "We agonized for several hours" the night the wire pictures of the crash site came in. His only source of photos was the Associated Press, which had offered "close-ups, really sickening," he said. United Press International had offered more discreet long shots of the bodies amid the wreckage, but the Times doesn't subscribe to UPI.
AP had released the close-ups of the bodies in the dead of night, more or less "sight unseen," because "everybody was hot for this, the staging area, the first film" said George Mikulec, day editor for the wire service. "No one was suspecting the bodies would be in the state they were."
At 1:15 a.m., as soon as somebody got a look at one of the close-ups, it was cut off in mid-transmission. "Content objectionable, picture aborted," the log reads. Mikulec said he held back all the body pictures when he came on duty.
Kramer, at the Trenton Times, ended up running no pictures of bodies at the crash site, but a large one of Khalkhali in Tehran, stooping over a body bag.
"The far bigger and more important message was in the embassy courtyard [rather than at the crash site]," he said. Noting that patriotic sentiments are intense in the blue-collar communities the paper serves, he added that by showing the more inflammatory of the photos, "We could have really incited something here."
The Washington Post and the New York Times both ran UPI shot photos of charred bodies at the wreckage site, the Post on Page One, The Times inside the paper.
"You have to weigh your sense of outrage against your sense of taste," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post. "Certainly they were news, those pictures. . . . But some were so grotesque, so macabre, that you couldn't run them."