The Media Can’t Avoid bin Laden Death Picture

The White House and news editors continue, three days later, to debate when and if they will publish pictures of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. They don’t have much of a choice.

The Media Can't Avoid bin Laden Death Picture

From the White House’s perspective, they can’t not release Osama bin Laden’s final snapshot.

As CIA director Leon Panetta said, “The bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him.”

And once that image gets released, the media can’t ignore it. They have no other option but to print it.

Yes, there’s the issue of gruesome imagery to worry about. Washington Post managing editor Liz Spayd remarked, “We are a family newspaper. We are mindful that people’s children see the paper, and we don’t want to publish anything gratuitously. At the same time, we don’t want to hide what’s happening.” But there’s also the journalistic value of the images.

Said New York Times editor Bill Keller, “We generally avoid pictures that are gra­tui­tous­ly ghastly. But the key word is ‘gratuitously,’ meaning the images, besides being disturbing, don’t have significant journalistic value. Pictures of Osama bin Laden dead certainly have significant journalistic value.”

Then there’s the fact that the image will get out. There are no more, media analysts are fond of saying, traditional gatekeepers. Countless bloggers, hackers and the morbidly curious will guarantee we are all privy to the pictures.

But the most compelling argument for the powers that be distributing bin Laden’s death picture is the fact that almost all of the nation’s newspapers and news outlets published pictures of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Iraq chapter who was killed by a U.S. raid in 2006. The same people can’t very well turn a blind eye to bin Laden death pictures when they have a record of publishing similar images in the past.

Publication of bin Laden’s corpse wouldn’t just be for the greater political and journalistic good. It just makes common sense.

Update: In case you haven’t heard, Obama won’t be releasing the images anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be revealed, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.