Nineteenth-century American author and lawyer Christian Nestell Bovee once noted that “Bad taste is a species of bad morals.” So, what would he think of the posting of the Sadam Hussein execution video and the recent decision to air the wildlife documentary Croc Hunter Steve Irwin was working on when he was killed by a stingray barb? Would Bovee chalk it up to simple 21st century tackiness, or would he despair that, as a culture, we’ve entered into an ethical quagmire?

It used to be that news editors acted as the culture’s de facto arbiters of taste–deciding what images were acceptable to show or broadcast. Ironically, many scholars believe that it was the media that helped put an end to public executions in the United States, when reporters described the distateful carnival-like atmosphere of the 1936 execution of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky. And while newspaper editors and television producers still struggle with what is in good taste, people posting to upstart online video portals such as YouTube don’t have to battle with such moral quandries. They can just shoot and show, and the networks are struggling to be as provocative while towing the taste line.

Executions of political prisoners are often documented; photgraphs of Communist Romania nleader Nicolae Ceau?escu come to mind. However, in this age of instant and effortless communication, arguments have been made that mere still photos would not have been enough to convince the world of Hussein’s death. (In fact, accusations have been lobbed that those cell phone videographers were in cahoots with Arab television networks.) And while documenting the dictator’s demise is important for posterity, should it be publicly posted to sate browsers’ prurient interests?

Investor’s Business Daily notes that “The Hussein video is the latest example of the Web’s pushing the limits of the First Amendment.”

“What the Internet has done is removed censorship and taken freedom of speech to a whole new level,” Phil Leigh, an analyst for Inside Digital Media, told the publication. “You get some questionable stuff, but you have to take the good with the bad.”

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Taste cannot be controlled by law.” A very American concept.

To a lesser extent, the decision to air Irwin’s final episode raises questions as well. While no actual footage from the fatal day will be included and an Irwin tribute will accompany the show, the reasoning behind its airing seems a bit disingenuous.

“The documentary was commissioned, we finished it, and it’s going to air,” John Stainton, Irwin’s former manager told EOnline News. “It’s been a long and arduous saga… an emotionally charged time to do an edit on a documentary that did have a deadline, and we did have to honor that deadline.”

Is the Discovery Channel really so heartless? Could they not understand that the episode may never be finished? If the Irwin family endorses the airing, then so be it, but at least they could have changed the title: “Ocean’s Deadliest”–you read that correctly–airs on January 21.

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