Bin Laden Death Photo Coverage Is Media's New Birther Moment

Spouting conspiracy theories is the way to get media coverage these days.


On Tuesday morning, counterterrorism official John Brennan was interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep about the death of Osama bin Laden. For about eight minutes, listeners were treated to a serious and in-depth exploration of the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s discovery and demise.

But then, right at the end, Inskeep couldn’t help himself. "In a few seconds, Mr. Brennan, why haven’t you released photos of Osama bin Laden?" Inskeep asked. Over the final minute of the interview, he repeated that important question four times.

And you couldn’t help thinking: Here we go again.

Wasn’t it just, like, hours ago that the media had assumed a posture of deep introspection about their role in fueling outlandish conspiracy theories? [Vote now: Is Obama right not to release post-mortem Osama bin Laden photos?]

On one hand, there were people like Shepard Smith of Fox News urging the media to "look in the mirror" because questions about President Obama’s birthplace were "a load of crap" and journalists "knew it from the very beginning." (Amen.) On the other, there was Bob Garfield of NPR’s On the Media arguing that the attention paid by the media to Donald Trump’s birther claims was necessary to help the public distinguish between a "carnival barker" and a "responsible leader." (Oh, I get it: Loons raise loony questions, the media repeats them over and over again, and, in so doing, exposes them to an audience far larger than the loons ever could have dreamed of reaching on their own, and thus we need the media to help us identify the loons. Wow, what an indispensible service.) No consensus, perhaps, but at least they were grappling with the question.

Not anymore, evidently.

Just hours after President Obama addressed the nation, no less than J. Michael Waller posted a blog entry opining that bin Laden should be displayed naked in lower Manhattan, then chopped into bits and dumped into the New York City sewers because while he may be dead "I’ll believe it when I see it." Who’s J. Michael Waller you ask? Who cares! Questions have been raised! The public needs help identifying the carnival barkers! Summon the media! [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]

So, there was Inskeep pressing Brennan. The Chicago Sun Times editorialized that a photo should be released to stop the conspiracy theories. The Associated Press moved a story headlined "Wanted: Visual Proof that the U.S. got him." (Though you might reasonably ask why, given that the proof detailed in the story included DNA evidence, photographic identification, bin Laden’s wife apparently calling out to him by name during the firefight, and "[t]ellingly" an al Qaeda spokesman calling bin Laden "a martyr" and offering "no challenge to the U.S. account of his death." Mighty suspicious!)

In fairness, there are differences between the birther stories and whether the United States should release a photo of bin Laden. To be sure, the latter has actual foreign policy and national security implications, and, now that the administration has decided not to release a photo, it may be that serious issues, rather than the increasingly hairbrained ideas of conspiracy theorists, will drive the media’s coverage but ... I’ll believe it when I see it. [See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.]

If the media would like us to believe it has serious, as opposed to sensationalistic, intentions when it covers a story like this, the nature of the coverage has to change. Raising a baseless charge again and again, day after day, and concluding that you’ve done your job if "both sides" of the story are represented does everyone a remarkable disservice. The reason: It gives the media’s imprimatur of legitimacy to a charge that is baseless, and it leaves the impression that there are two sides to an issue that is, in fact, indisputably settled.

Instead, if the media is going to give such issues any coverage at all, it should turn its camera in the opposite direction, focusing on the people who cling to preposterous beliefs and asking what that tells us about them, our culture, and our country. That may be a worthy journalistic pursuit, but we’ve seen very little of it.

Of course, there may be a bright side to all of this: The secret to getting media coverage has been revealed.

Therefore, I would like to announce the following: I believe the moon is made of elephants.

Media: Come and get me.

  • See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.
  • Vote now:Is Obama right not to release post-mortem Osama bin Laden photos?
  • See a transcript of Obama's speech on bin Laden death.
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