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Media Failed Us on Bin Laden Kill

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Media Failed Us On Bin Laden Kill.

As part of my masters degree in Media Practice, I am researching and writing a dissertation on press criticism and the role it plays in promoting/maintaining a functioning and democratic press. Whilst my thesis is focused on the New York Times’ and how it rates its own coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over the last week and a half I have been struck by how suitable the coverage of the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has been for systematic criticism.

The death of bin Laden, and subsequent media circus, is an ideal opportunity for the news media to assess its own performance and function. In our western media system, the news media and democracy are inextricably linked; with some journalism academics go as far as to say they are one and the same. In such a context, the news media must provide the public with all the information they require to be free, informed and functioning citizens.

The job of a journalist is to question, to demand answers and to verify information, particularly that obtained from politicians. To keep the bastards honest, in other words. So why, in just over a week of bin Laden death coverage has the mainstream media functioned largely as a mouthpiece for the US government?

The death of Bin Laden was witnessed by no one other than the American operatives and their (mostly dead) victims. It was relayed to the world in a shock announcement by the US president, Barrack Obama, who proudly advanced the cause of American exceptionalism by declaring America can indeed do anything it wants to (he must have been paying attention to Gillard’s’ speech in the congress earlier this year). The world’s media immediately reported the death as fact, even though it had occurred, in the words of Guy Rundle, ‘in the President’s words and nowhere else.’

Whatever happened to the word ‘allegedly’? Since when has the media existed only to regurgitate the claims of the government and declare them true without independent verification? Turns out, questions were just were what was required, given the ever-changing details of the surreptious raid. Was the Obama administration ‘correcting facts’, as the Sydney Morning Herald politely claims, or merely making them up as they go along?

Scepticism should not be confused with conspiracy propagation. Yet, conspiracy theorists is exactly what the many in the media, whose very job description calls for healthy scepticism, were quick to label anyone who dared ask questions. The fact the raid came hot on the tails of the release of Obama’s long form birth certificate prompted many to liken sceptics over the US government version of events to the notorious ‘birthers’, who refuse to believe the president is a natural-born US citizen. This is a preposterous comparison. Conspiracy theorists ardently stick to their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The evidence for Obama’s citizenship was both abundant and in the public domain. The evidence for the death and deep-sea burial of bin Laden exists only in the hands of the Obama administration, evidence they still refuse to release. It is not conspiracy propagation to doubt the veracity of the statements made by a government that had just enacted a kill operation in total secrecy in a foreign country- without that country’s knowledge. It is simply asking for transparency.

Had the media acted more critically, perhaps it would not have been left up lawyers  and academics  to question the morality and legality of the raid, let alone the claim that ‘justice had been served.’ A claim first put forward by former lawyer Obama himself, faithfully repeated by western leaders including PM Gillard, and disseminated by the media. The irony of a life-long opponent of the death penalty ‘welcoming the news’ of the manner of bin Laden’s demise seemed to be lost on the great chunk of the local media, save for the usual inquiring suspects including Crikey, Eureka St and New Matilda.

To be clear, I am not implying that the government is lying about all aspects of the operation, nor do I mean to suggest that bin Laden is still alive or not buried at sea. Rather, I mean to stress that demanding verification and evidence is both right and proper when it comes to any story, particularly ones which appear to be as one-sided as this. It is the only way in which the public can hope to know anything approximating the truth. As more details emerge, and change, making yesterday’s facts today’s misinformation, the news media should use this as an opportunity to assess their own performance.

Whilst few may have any sympathy for bin Laden, what is at stake is bigger than the life and death of a single man. The news media cannot go down the road of accepting, without question, any claim by any government, much less that of a foreign administration. It directly contradicts the function of the press and sets a dangerous precedent where the media exists not serve the public but to advance the interest of the ruling elite. Nor can the media shy away from criticism such as this. Press criticism is a vital aspect of assessing whether the media is fulfilling its function. Our democracy depends on it.


Written by Ruby

May 10, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Media, Terrorism, USA

Tagged with , , , ,