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Media coverage of Osama bin Laden's killing raises questions

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 11th, 2011 · On Second Thought

SEALs and their pilots spent months preparing for the raid but White House spokesmen obviously gave little thought to what they’d tell us. The raid succeeded; White House images and statements were contradictory and chaotic. 

We first saw a photo from the White House situation room with everyone looking intently at something we couldn’t see. About the same time, White House spokesmen said a live TV feed was coming from minicams atop the SEALs’ helmets. 

Were the president and others watching bin Laden being shot? Was Hillary’s hand-to-face gesture a response to a killing? If yes, how did we got such a phony story about his armed resistance? They would have known better. 

Turns out, we’re told now, the TV transmission aborted at some point, the screen might have been blank and the tension arose from not knowing what was going on. 

So who told the PR guys that bin Laden died firing an AK-47 from behind a female human shield? It wasn’t true and it’s hard to square with what we now are told happened in that room: Unarmed, no human shield, and shot once in the eye and once in the chest as a coup d’grace. Both versions are official from the White House. 

This wasn’t the fog of war. This was deception. Someone faked it.

Since events in the first story never happened, whomever originally told it knew better. It was a lie as unnecessary as the lies, deceptions and dishonorable military and Bush Administration actions following Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s combat death at the hands of his colleagues. 

The raid also proved again that information does not equate to knowledge and tweeting may not be journalism.

A Pakistani neighbor tweeted that helicopters were flying above what we now know was bin Laden’s compound and there were explosions. It was the first anyone heard of an attack. It appears, however, the neighbor didn’t know bin Laden lived there or that it was a U.S. raid. That’s no knock on the neighbor; his was the first and most accurate initial account. But it shows the silliness of attempts to dignify his tweet as “citizen journalism.”

Once the White House announced that bin Laden was killed, NPR went nonstop with “special coverage” on the bin Laden story. Knowledgable people did their best to describe and explain who, what, when, where and why as the White House changed its story.  NPR — the target of unremitting right wing ranters and legislators — musters more foreign correspondents than TV networks. More importantly, NPR’s reporters and commentators are longterm residents of the country/region about which they are talking. Among American broadcasters, it was unmatched. Only BBC World Service compares favorably. 

Despite the strength of NPR, BBC and Internet sources, most Americans rely on TV for their news. Initial surveys reported that more people turned to CNN than Fox News for stories about the raid. That’s hopeful.

This kind of breaking news rarely fails to bring out the best in journalists. Tearing up page 1 on deadline is about as tough as it gets, not least because of cascading news: Inside pages have to accommodate stories and photos dumped suddenly from the front page. Those stories that don’t make the cut often never make the paper, although online can be more forgiving with its infinite capacity . . . so long as there are editors to do it all.

Enquirer journalists did what was required when they got the late news that SEALs killed bin Laden.

The paper told us what happened. Nuance, context and interpretation waited for another day (or online). The simplicity of The Enquirer’s page 1 suggests how late the news arrived: Huge headline, big photo and grey block of type. Simple, quick, effective. 

Of course, there was a Cincinnati connection to all of this. Tom Ricks, an authoritative U.S. writer and commentator on the Asian subcontinent, mentioned on NPR that he’d lived in Afghanistan as a youth. That rang a bell: He responded to my email, saying that yes, he’s the son of David and Annie Ricks, whom we knew when they lived in North Avondale. Dave was a UC professor of psychology who also taught in Kabul. Annie was a union organizer.

Curmudgeon notes:

• Did Obama delay the attack on bin Laden until the NFL draft ended and the royal wedding was over?  Three simultaneous stories that large might have caused meltdowns in too many newsrooms. 

• An editing slip suggests that in less stressed moments, The Enquirer’s editing staff is too thin or busy. A story about a barefoot marathoner said he lived in Clifton. Information under his photo said Clifton Heights. Those neighborhoods are separated by Good Sam, Hebrew Union College and UC in University Heights. It’s the responsibility of the reporter and the photographer to get this right; one or both screwed up and no editor had opportunity or time to catch the contradiction.

• Sunday’s Enquirer reminded me of how much I depend on a local newspaper. No other news medium can deploy such resources in pursuit or explanation of local news. The Sunday paper explained the Ohio budget and more importantly, some of its implications for health, schools, local government, etc. Whatever limits of information, insight and space burdened reporters, it’s a helluva lot less partisan and more useful than what our legislators and opinion columnists tell us. Inexplicably, this project was hidden among the tiny-type listings on the Cincinnati.com home page, way below trivia about convicted killer Ryan Widmer on TV.  Even crazier, this vital story lost even that minimal home page display seconds after I first found it. It was bumped to one of the “more news” displays on another screen. For the fullest version, get the print edition. Similarly, the Enquirer’s take on the Guv’s casino armtwisting is well worth reading for its facts and reasoning. Wisely, because it’s still in play, this casino story tops the Cincinnati.com home page. 

• My late colleague Camilla Warrick bemoaned what she called “woman as geek” stories. You know the kind she meant, the stories that began “She didn’t look like a structural steel worker, but . . . “ or “You’d never think so-and-so was a famous microbiologist . . .” Other reporters and more than a few activists bemoan “Super Crip” stories about persons with disabilities/handicaps who exceed stereotypical expectations.  Somehow, local news media managed to blend both cliches in stories about the fastest female runner in the Flying Pig. What did we learn? She recently had some undefined surgery. That she is blind in one eye and has limited forward vision in the other. That she is legally blind. Subordinated to all of this was the fact that she is one helluva marathoner. It was as if her victory was only an occasion for drooling coverage of her medical history and vision limits. If anyone also noted that she achieves all of this despite having three children, I missed it. Nine more kids and she’ll be Mother of the Year. 

• Sometimes a page 1 photo is breathtaking in its portrayal of something stunningly dumb. A recent Enquirer image showed a New Richmond preschool student in a green McDonald’s visor and, it seems, McDonald’s apron. She apparently was talking into a yellow faux microphone that was attached to her visor. This isn’t play. “Fries with that?” isn’t education. It’s indoctrination. As I said, it was perfect: The article documents GOP trashing of Ohio's preschool education. 

• I love a hoax when it suckers news organizations that could have avoided embarrassment with one call to “check it out.” The London Daily Mail reports a recent example. “It began as an April Fool’s joke. An article in the Army’s official magazine claimed that ancient ranks and titles were to be replaced with ‘gender-neutral’ alternatives to comply with EU (European Union) equality laws. Guardsmen would be called ‘protector’, ‘sentinel’ or ‘escort’. Craftsmen would be known as ‘artificers’ or ‘tradespersons’, it said. But the prank backfired when scores of troops took it at face-value and complained on Armed Forces internet blogs and messaging boards.

“The article in Soldier magazine, headlined ‘Gingerbread Clause Prompts Changing Of The Guard’, explained the supposed effects of the Equality Act 2010. ‘One solution being mooted is simply taking the 'man' out of each title and inserting "person" in its place, which would comply with European law.’

“ . . . The article was given further credence by quoting what purported to be an official Ministry of Defence spokesman as saying the changes would be subjected to consultation before being introduced next year. The story was written so convincingly in the style of real Army announcements that many were fooled . . . (A) number of people were taken in by the hoax – among them several national journalists – but the dozen or so who contacted the magazine in respect of the piece took it in good humour when pointed in the direction of the magazine’s cover date.” At least they checked. 

• My favorite line from coverage of the royal wedding also comes from London’s Daily Mail: “ ‘She’s been helping with Harry’s best man speech because she has a better memory of their nights out with William,’ says a friend.” She is Chelsy Davy, sometime girlfriend and partying companion of Prince Harry.

• I don’t get it, the hats that posh British women wear to public events.  I’m not talking about seriously weird hats that some less-than-stylish younger women create to attract photographers.  I’m talking about the unique, expensive but rarely flattering toppings worn at, for instance, The Wedding.  Who makes these things? A misogynist? I don’t even want to know what top people pay for them. Even stranger, many Britons and American sycophants faulted Samantha Cameron, a former model who is the wife of Prime Minister David Cameron, for not wearing a hat to the royal event.  

• One cringe-worthy aspect of The Wedding coverage was forensic lip-readers who told us what William whispered during the ceremony. These are professionals on whom courts, among others, rely. But what is our need to know? 

• I understand why the Brits made a fuss over The Wedding. Facing austerity unlike any seen since post-war years, many needed the vicarious pleasure of someone having fun even at their collective expense. I understand the comparisons to Di and Chuck’s nuptials and failed marriage (other than to produce “An Heir and A Spare”). And I understand why Royal Watchers finally could enjoy the legitimizing of a public affair they’ve watched for almost a decade. But why the American news media? Why even NPR? Most had the good taste to not repeat Chuck’s response to earlier news the couple were engaged: “They have been practising long enough.”

 
 
 
 

 

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