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Update: More bin Laden Media Mistakes, Explained

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Pakistani media personnel and local residents gather outside the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. Pakistani media personnel and local residents gather outside the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)

Journalists are constantly complaining about the light-speed news cycle nurtured by Twitter updates and the constant race to be first, or at least current. But the this sprint to be fast and relevant often leads to trips, falls and scuffed knees.

The fallout from President Obama's announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces late Sunday night is a perfect example of how misinformation from a unique source, news aggregation and insta-feedback from Twitterlandia can get mixed up to ill effect. Here are five falsehoods that have been birthed, spread and discredited - all in two days!

1. The photo of a dead-looking Osama bin Laden: Ok, Osama bin Laden did get shot in the face, but this picture of him circulating in worldwide newspapers is a blatant fake. How did it happen? Well, apparently someone decided a picture said the 1,000 necessarily words, even if the photo was photoshopped back in 2009. It didn't take long for this to make the rounds on all the conspiracy minded corners of the internet. Word is that the Obama Administration has the actual photos, and is debating releasing them. (On one hand, you put conspiracies to rest. On the other, you potentially anger and offend). 

2. Two witty but erroneously attributed epitaphs. "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." - Martin Luther King, Jr" was a huge twitter RT on Monday. Only problem? NOT a MLK quote. It came from 24 year old Jessica Dovey's Facebook page where it originally looked like this:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." MLK Jr.

Note the quotation marks. As people trimmed down the quote to fit 140 character limits those quotation quotes were lost in the mix, and the poetic words were attributed to MLK, not JD. Salon reported that the magician Penn Jillette really got the meme going.

Likewise, the following aphorism was falsely attributed to Mark Twain and retweeted like a banshee on Twitter:

All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.

Twain-esque, just not Twain. Cord Jefferson at Good reported that they're actually the words of civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow. Someone just decided they just "sounded" like Twain.

3. "Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield." This detail made bin Laden sound even more like a horrible human being than he might have before, and it also seemed to acquit the U.S. Navy Seals from a messy civilian casualty in their attack on Osama's hideaway. The source of this information seemed credible: counter-terrorism official John Brennan. People ate it up. Then on Monday night, Politico reported that the White House changed their account of the scene. Bin Laden's wife was not killed, it was a different person's wife.

That's the problem with only having one source for a story (in this case the U.S. government) and no witnesses who can talk - the public is susceptible to the spread of that source's misinformation.

4. "Bin Laden's compound was a mansion." It would be incredibly ironic if for all these years bin Laden had been taking baths in a golden tub... but that just didn't happen. He wasn't in a cave either, but it's just not right to call his hideaway a mansion. Time reported the details:

The compound doesn't quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 ft. (4 m) high and about 13 in. (33 cm) thick — enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property is spread over an area slightly smaller than 1 acre (0.4 hectare). The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two stories.

5. "Bin Laden was armed." Jay Carney, the White House press secretary confirmed today that bin Laden was not armed in the attack. When we believed he had been, the image in the public imagination was that of a dramatic shoot out between the forces of good and evil. It's surely still seen that way by many, even without bin Laden holding a weapon. The difference is that one version is a good story, and the other is a messier reality.

Information continues to surface. Slate reported late Tuesday afternoon that CIA director Leon Panetta said U.S. officials assumed from the beginning bin Laden would die in the raid.

THURSDAY UPDATE:

6. The term "firefight" referring to what happened when the U.S. Navy Seals dropped into bin Laden's compound may be an exaggeration. The New York Times reported on Thursday morning that the battle was one-sided and aggressive shots were fired only at the very beginning by bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. After Kuwaiti was killed, the Navy Seals were not fired upon again. This differs from the White House's line on Tuesday, that the U.S. forces “were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.”

7. Waterboarding wasn't used to get bin Laden, and then it was. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flip-flopped on the question if waterboarding was used to gather intelligence for the bin Laden raid. On May 2, Rumsfeld told Newsmax the following:

“The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.”

But a day later on Fox, Rumsfeld changed his tune:

"I think that anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let's be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence, just isn't facing the truth. The facts are, General Mike Hayden came in, he had no connection with waterboarding anybody. He looked at all the evidence and concluded that a major fraction of the intelligence in our country on al Qaeda came from individuals, the three, only three people who were waterboarded."

Rumsfeld clarified by saying that those three people "were waterboarded by the CIA, away from Guantanamo and then later brought to Guantanamo. And in fact, as you point out, the information that came from those individuals was critically important." Apparently Rumsfeld knows his audience, as he knows what's known and unknown, like he titled his new memoir.

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Comments [4]

Talleyrand from Geneva, Switzerland

Journalism and twitting are two different things, but the Great Unwashed often mixes up the two. There was a case of that in Germany not long ago. But journalism? It's dead for the most part. I still try to do it as a freelancer, but when someone tells you "Go write the story on XYZ, we pay 150 dollars" and you realize that the research will take two days and a train ride.... what do you do? You phone, you surf, ... and you get the runaround, but you make the 150$ in one day, and you just hope and pray that your wife has had a good day in her job.

And to get that one job, you have to write about 100 query letters (my record was in 2009, I wrote about 500, of which 20 were answered).

The Osama story has been drowned out by noise since the start. The man was larger than life. Doesn't anyone see the weird dissonance with the image projected by the media and that musty old character full of Pakistani viagra nodding off in front of the TV?

May. 12 2011 01:33 PM
Ben from France

You write: "Word is that the Obama Administration has the actual photos, and is debating releasing them. (On one hand, you put conspiracies to rest. On the other, you potentially anger and offend)."

I beg to differ. There are loads of photos and even videos from man walking on the moon, and yet some wackos out there call it the "moon hoax" and deny it all. Those who want to believe in conspiracies will always find a way to explain away any proof.

May. 05 2011 02:19 PM
none

To 2.

The fake picture existed before the day osama was shot. It circulated through the web maybe for years but at least since two weeks.

May. 05 2011 10:18 AM
Jay Baker from People's Republic of South Yorkshire, England

The great Tim Knight once told me in an interview that having citizen journalists is as risky and often irresponsible as having citizen surgeons. But if your surgeons were actually killing people instead of saving lives, you'd maybe give others a chance. That's what's happening to journalism today: standards are ever lower, even while it remains in the top three class-exclusive careers (only behind lawyer...and doctor, funnily enough).

May. 04 2011 05:10 PM

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