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Libyan leader's death tests media outlets' willingness to show graphic images
NEW YORK (AP) ' An opposition figure provided Al Jazeera with cellphone video of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's violent death on Thursday, testing media organizations around the world on their capacity for showing gruesome pictures.
In the first shaky video viewers saw, Gadhafi was on the ground bloodied, either dead or near death. Other video and even more graphic still pictures emerged throughout the day. One of the most chilling images from the Al Arabiya network depicted a bloody and dazed Gadhafi walking toward a car, then shouting as he struggled with revolutionary fighters; it wasn't clear how quickly he died after that scene.
Al Jazeera showed its video at 8:46 a.m. EDT on Thursday and it was swiftly picked up by other organizations before official word came that the longtime dictator was dead.
"It's pretty chilling video when you think of it ' that they got him alive and now he's dead," CNN's Wolf Blitzer said.
Al Jazeera obtained and aired the video nearly two hours after reporting that Gadhafi was dead, network spokesman Osama Saeed said. It was obtained by Al Jazeera reporter Tony Birtley in Sirte, Libya.
"It was nothing more complicated than a lot of people running around and he was there," Saeed said. "People were wanting to give footage to reporters."
Producers at Al Jazeera were confident that the video depicted Gadhafi primarily because Al Jazeera had already reported from multiple sources that he had been killed, he said.
Before showing video footage, The Associated Press first ran still images taken from the Al Jazeera video, its editors confident of the veracity of the images because AP editors had carefully examined the full video, spokesman Paul Colford said. The ease with which photos can be doctored has made news organizations careful about distributing images.
The AP also provided its members with video obtained from Arab television networks and the AP's own sources.
The Al Jazeera video was used quickly on U.S. cable news networks CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Al Jazeera had no problem with others running their video, as long as credit was given, Saeed said. Some rivals asked for permission, others didn't, he said.
Broadcast networks also used the video in special reports on Gadhafi's death that interrupted daytime programming. ABC did not air video until a short special report with President Obama's statement shortly after 2 p.m. EDT. ABC later preceded the Gadhafi pictures with a warning from anchor George Stephanopolous: "I warn you that it is graphic and gruesome."
Despite the content, "these images are the very definition of news," Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News spokesman, said.
NBC similarly aired video of Gadhafi being led to a vehicle and then briefly showed his corpse in a special report. Network officials carefully vetted the material for appropriateness, David McCormick, NBC News vice president for standards, said.
"We want to give our audience the most accurate reports possible without crossing a line into offensive or unnecessarily graphic material," he said. "We feel the footage that has aired has met those boundaries, and we're constantly in touch with producers about what is and is not acceptable."
Still, the presence of the pictures ignited a debate among news consumers about how much of Gadhafi's final moments should be shown.
"It's enough to know the world is rid of a brutal, oppressive dictator," said Carlos Galindo-Elvira, an executive at a nonprofit agency in Phoenix. "The Libyan people can now move forward. The world is not made into a better place by displaying the graphic photos of his demise."
Bradley McRoberts, a college student from New Haven, Conn., said that if the news media didn't use the pictures, they would be censoring history.
"We must always err on the side of openness in journalism, even in times when the images are grotesque," McRoberts said. "Understandably, there should be a warning presented before these images or videos are shown. If someone chooses not to look, that is their choice. It should not be the decision of the news organization."
Many websites that prominently carried the news gave viewers a choice about whether they wanted to see images or not. At the top of The New York Times' website, there was a slide show that began with a picture of a revolutionary fighter outside the drain pipe where Gadhafi apparently hid. A visitor needed to click through a series of nine celebratory shots and archive photos of Gadhafi before reaching a black slide with the warning: "The following is a graphic image said to show Colonel Gadhafi's corpse." Another click was required to see a picture of the Libyan leader, his eyes closed, and face and fatigues bloodied.
The home page for MSNBC's website carried four pictures, none showing Gadhafi's body, but visitors were provided a link to graphic video. A BBC slide show offered three file photos of Gadhafi alive and two of Libyans celebrating his death.
However, viewers who went to Al Arabiya's website were met first with a large picture of a dead Gadhafi's face contorted and bloodied. It then switched to another bloody photo without a visitor needing to do anything but watch.
The AP received an email from medical student Amin Demerdash from Cairo, Egypt, with a simple message: "Stop it. We have seen enough already."
Meanwhile, there was some tension between American journalists and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Pakistan on Thursday after visiting Tripoli, Libya, earlier in the week.
During its coverage of Gadhafi's death, some American networks aired footage of Clinton that had been shot during breaks in a series of interviews she gave to TV reporters traveling with her in Pakistan. Clinton was handed a Blackberry during one break to read news of Gadhafi's reported capture, and she said, "Wow." She quickly noted that the report was unconfirmed and there had been similar reports in the past that had turned out to be false.
CBS News' website ran a different clip of Clinton, before another interview began, in which she was apparently joking about the story. "We came, we saw, he died," she said, laughing.
Philippe Reines, an aide to Clinton, said he had complained to the traveling network representatives that filming Clinton in between the interviews was a breach of protocol. They wouldn't show her applying makeup before an interview, for example, even if cameras were set up.
"I think it's outside the bounds of the relationships we have with our traveling press corps," he said.
AP National Security Writer Mathew Lee contributed to this report.