The toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square in April 2003, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq began, had profound effects on the world's perception of the war, even if it had little to do with reality.
In his definitive analysis of this little pseudo-event in the New Yorker in 2011, Peter Maass cited a 2005 study by George Washington University media professor Sean Aday that examined Iraq coverage on CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC from March 20th to April 20th. It found that the coverage of Firdos Square had "profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America" because, Maass noted, "it fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less."
"It found that," continued Maass, "in the week after the statue was toppled, war stories from Iraq decreased by seventy per cent on Fox, sixty-six per cent on ABC, fifty-eight per cent on NBC, thirty-nine per cent on CBS, and twenty-six per cent on CNN, even though, in that same week, thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed and looting was rampant."
"Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling—especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history—imply the war is over," Aday writes in "As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War."
"Indeed, as the day unfolded, the events in Firdos Square broadcast in the morning… increasingly took on a life of their own and began being described in terms of a historic liberation of an oppressed people."
The study, published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, is behind a paywall but it's worth a read, both as a document of war journalism and a reminder of the media's sometimes consequential role in shaping the global events that it documents. An excerpt is below; "FNC" here means Fox News Channel.
It took more than 2 hours for the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square to fall. FNC, both of whom had reporters and crews based across the street in the Palestine Hotel, ran nearly constant live images of a crowd of Iraqis milling about the statue, throwing debris at it, and for a while taking turns trying to knock it down with a sledgehammer.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m. American Marines in a tank recovery vehicle entered the square and began assisting in the effort. At 10:50, having tied a rope from the statue to their vehicle, the Americans pulled the statue to the ground. The crowd swarmed around, stomping on it, and eventually dragging its head through the nearby streets.
In actuality, much of the 2 hours before the statue fell did not consist of much in the way of dramatic visuals. Other than the few minutes of sledgehammering, events did not develop any real momentum until close to 10:30 when an American Marine began climbing the statue, leading to a brief but controversial moment when the soldier hung an American flag on its face before quickly taking it down and replacing it with a pre-Gulf War Iraqi flag. Both networks wasted no time priming their audience to understand the historical significance of the impending fall of the statue. For example, at 9:45 a.m. on CNN, Bill Hemmer said as crowds gathered in the square:
You think about seminal moments in a nation's history … indelible
moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that's what we're
seeing right now: Regular Iraqis with their opportunity and their
chance to take their own axe to take down Saddam Hussein.
On Fox, the image of the statue falling was replayed an average of 6.83 times every half hour between 11:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., or about once every 4.4 minutes on average. On CNN, the shot ran an average of 4 times every half hour, or once every 7 1/2 minutes.
On FNC, David Asman also framed the event in historical terms, with increasing anticipation:
[8:52 a.m.:] You are seeing history in the making right now.
[9:30 a.m.:] My goosebumps have never been higher than they are
[10:12 a.m.:] This is one of those moments in history that we are
privileged to be reporting on.
The last comment was echoed seconds later by anchor and longtime network correspondent Brit Hume: "This transcends anything I've ever seen."
Securely placed in the context of recent revolutionary moments, the actual toppling of the statue immediately became the dominant image of the day's news. On FNC, the image of the statue falling was replayed an average of 6.83 times every half hour between 11:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., or about once every 4.4 minutes on average. On CNN, the shot ran an average of 4 times every half hour, or once every 7 1/2 minutes (Figure 1). An independent samples t test shows the differences between FNC and CNN to be statistically significant, t(34) = 3.157, p < .01.
Further evidence that it was this image that achieved iconic status to the press, and not others devoid of the same iconic historical reference points (such as the ripping of posters of Hussein), can be found in the fact that this was the visual used as early as midafternoon on the 9th to promote upcoming shows on both channels. And per Bennett and Lawrence (1995), the image quickly became reproduced in other nonnews contexts. Specifically, it became a branding device for both CNN and FNC, which began including it in montages of images used in "house ads" promoting the networks on April 10th.
Also important to consider is how the events at Firdos Square looked on television. Recalling Lang and Lang's (1968) MacArthur parade study, broadcast images of the toppling of the statue also tended to exaggerate the size of the crowd. Wide-angle shots show clearly that the Square was never close to being even a quarter full during this period, and never had more than a few hundred people in it (many of them reporters). Before the statue fell, and shortly after, reporters on both channels occasionally gave estimates of, or described, the number of people in the square, although they did not always agree.
For instance, on CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, watching events unfold from Kuwait City, frequently called the crowd "small" before the fall of the statue, but a minute after it collapsed on-scene reporter Simon Robinson guessed its size at close to 1,500. One might be inclined to believe Robinson since he was in the square, but two reporters for print organizations interviewed later by CNN, Melinda Liu of Newsweek and Craig Nelson of Cox News Service—both independently estimated that "dozens … maybe a couple hundred" (Liu at 11:37 a.m.) or "200 to 300" (Nelson at 7:04 p.m.) were in the crowd.
On FNC, there were two references to the crowd being "small" between noon and 12:30 p.m., and between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m. there was one reference to it being large and one saying it was small. Other than the Liu and Nelson descriptions already mentioned, CNN had one reference to the crowd being small every half hour between 10:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. (mostly from Amanpour) and one description of it being large in each half hour between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Throughout the day, then, it was the pictures themselves that were left to tell viewers whether the number of Iraqis in the square was closer to a few or something much larger. Before the statue fell, when coverage was still live, both FNC and CNN would often cut back and forth from close-ups to wide-angle shots, the latter of which gave a sense of the crowd's size. Throughout the day both channels refrained from showing wide shots, choosing instead the more dramatic close-ups in which celebrating Iraqis filled the frame. As Lang and Lang (1968) argued, television's preference for tight shots over visuals that give a broader view of the scene can inadvertently render a false impression of the events being covered.
Furthermore, previous research on the power of visuals to mix with audio and create a larger, and often misleading, news narrative (e.g., Jamieson, 1992), suggests that when anchors on both channels described "jubilant crowds," and more generally "Iraqis," while the televised image was filled with Iraqis, viewers would be likely to get the impression that something closer to many thousands, not a few hundred, were present. This is important because it created the impression that Iraqi citizens were welcoming Americans as liberators, as promised by administration officials in the months leading up to the war.
Indeed, as the day unfolded, the events in Firdos Square broadcast in the morning (U.S. time) increasingly took on a life of their own and began being described in terms of a historic liberation of an oppressed people. As already mentioned, anchors on both channels began employing this language well before the statue fell. Throughout the day, as CNN and FNC played the image of a toppling Hussein over and over, this language continued. On CNN, where an average of about 11/2 such uses of "historic" were uttered every 30 minutes between noon and 8:00 p.m., lead anchor Wolf Blitzer opened virtually every half hour with some variation of "this historic day." FNC also made some reference to the historical nature of the morning's events about 1 1/2 times every 30 minutes.
In Entman's (1993) definition of framing, salience means in part the ordering of stories and information within a newscast, where the journalistic standard of inverted pyramid means what leads is most important. These references to the day's events being "historic" usually appeared at the beginning of each half-hour segment, thereby framing the news for viewers. For example, as Iraqis shouted and stomped on the fallen statue, FNC's Asman said at 11:00 a.m., "What you are seeing is the sounds and sights of liberation."
The saturation coverage of the statue falling crowded out other potential stories and alternative frames. Most notably, despite the fact that fighting continued throughout Baghdad during that day, not to mention across the country, little of this was shown to viewers. At 12:17 p.m., for example, FNC showed a map of Baghdad revealing six armed engagements in the city that day, but no visuals were provided then or later. In fact, FNC did not air any battle imagery until 5:30 p.m., and then only once or twice per half hour.
CNN aired more visuals (an average of 3.25 per half hour), but these were almost all the same pictures from embedded correspondent Martin Savidge's coverage of the aforementioned firefight at Baghdad University, plus occasional images from another CNN reporter embedded with American troops fighting alongside Kurds in Northern Iraq that were much less dramatic.
In other words, CNN did not show its audience that a war was going on but rather that two relatively uneventful battles took place. This occurred despite the fact that early in the morning, anchor Paula Zahn mentioned in passing that CNN had been getting reports from correspondents—not necessarily their own—throughout Baghdad that the city was in "total anarchy." Presumably because these reporters did not have camera crews, this story quickly disappeared and was rarely if ever referenced throughout the day.
One of the most memorable stories from that day in Baghdad was that of Kadom al-Jabouri, the bodybuilder who was once jailed by Saddam and, on that day in the square, took a sledgehammer to the statue, beginning the work that the Americans would finish ("The Man Who Toppled Saddam," as Al Jazeera cheekily called him in 2008).
"Under Saddam," al-Jabouri told the Guardian recently, "was corruption, but nothing like this. Our lives were protected. And many of the basics like electricity and gas were more affordable. After two years I saw no progress. Then there came the killings, robberies and sectarian violence. And things seem to get worse all the time. There's no future. Not as long as the political parties running the country are in power."
This story was updated on March 19, 2013 to reflect the Guardian article.