Should the United States Release Osama Bin Laden Death Photos?


At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that President Obama and his team do have visuals of Osama Bin Laden’s dead body that are “being reviewed,” but he declined to “get into specifics.” Tuesday morning, Drudge Report claimed that President Obama had already decided to make photographic proof public, but was still working out the details of the release, while CNN detailed exactly the sort of media available that might prove to the world that Sunday’s mission in Pakistan really did kill the most wanted terrorist of the last decade. (Fakes are already running rampant.) Inside our daily media column Press Clips, we ponder the current situation with the still-secret photos, in addition to potential problems with publication should the photo, or photos, be released. Plus, in non-Bin Laden media news, life at the Atlantic after Andrew Sullivan, an ambushed Rupert Murdoch and more.

Photo Op: CNN reported earlier on Tuesday that the decision process about which picture to release, if any, was complicated by the fact that “the picture that includes the most recognizable image of OBLs face — from the hangar in Afghanistan — is so gruesome and mangled its not appropriate for say the front page of the newspaper. On the other hand, this is the one that is most identifiable as him.”

If the government did opt to put out just one photo, and it’s the most gruesome but telling one, how will publications react? This is one case in which the uncensored internet could assert its influence over the mainstream print and news media, which considering the presumably guaranteed ubiquity of the photo online, no matter how brutal, could push more conservative publications (in terns of decency standards, not politics) to run an image that might in the past have been left out or at least censored.

But there are other options. Government officials received three sets of photos, according to CNN:

1. Photos of OBLs body at a hanger after he was brought back to Afghanistan. This is the most recognizable with a clear picture of his face. The picture is gruesome because he has a massive open head wound across both eyes. It’s very bloody and gory.

2. Photos from the burial at sea on the USS Carl Vinson. Photos of OBL before the shroud was put on and then wrapped in the shroud.

3. There are photos of the raid itself that include photos of the two dead brothers, one of OBLs dead son (adult adolescent, maybe approx 18 yrs old) and some of the inside scene of the compound.

And then it becomes a question of why. Why are we clamoring to see this photo? According to Reuters, Taliban leaders in Afghanistan held off on commenting about Bin Laden’s death, “As the Americans did not provide any acceptable evidence to back up their claim.” To a rational person, this photo would be the necessary proof, expert photo-doctoring be damned, but denials about Bin Laden’s death are guaranteed to persist no matter what form of media exists, as conspiracy theories of all stripes have forever in the face of fact. (See: moon landing, birthers and now deniers of Bin Laden’s death.)

At the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch has a take worth reading in which heargues that the photos should not be released:

If it’s released, this is the image that will instantly supplant every other account of Sunday’s raid as the iconic representation of America’s moment of triumph over its most wanted enemy. Is that what we want–the official equivalent of the Saddam hanging video? Did we learn nothing from the past decade about the overwhelming power of crude images of violence to define and polarize our historical moment? The Abu Ghraib photographs were unofficial documents of an official policy that was supposed to be kept secret, but if nothing else, they should have taught us that a photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait. In getting rid of bin Laden, Obama has made the greatest step yet toward being able to put that era behind us. Do we want a photo of bin Laden’s bullet-punctured skull to eclipse this moment?

But there’s an argument to be made that the “moment” is something of a farce; the murder of a mass murderer is not some magical thing to be celebrated in the abstract. Though a “symbol” was taken down on Sunday, as Rudy Giuliani said, so was a real man. In addition to a fear of being beaten by a competitor, it’s this idea of a harsh reality that will probably put a grisly Bid Laden image on every newspaper and website in the world should it get released. And putting a visual to that reality, even if it’s a hard one to stomach, might be good for the people of the world whose reactions, be they solemn or celebratory, will at least then be in response to something honest and concrete, scary as it may be.

Internet Journalism: Elsewhere, AOL and Yahoo continue their move toward becoming journalistic operations and not just ’90s relics with AOL/Huffington Post banner having promoted executive editor Nico Pitney to managing editor after losing Jai Singh to the Yahoo Media Network. And the New York Times is just happy to have not lost anyone in the shuffle.

Sullivan-less: Forbes reports that although Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish accounted for about 25% of’s online traffic, a generally improved website and the addition of the In Focus photo blog have offset the loss of Sullivan to The Daily Beast. In April, the first full month without the Daily Dish, The Atlantic had its second-best month ever online.

Portrait of Power: Lastly, here is a video of Rupert Murdoch being ambushed by a Media Matters reporter about the British newspapers’ phone hacking scandal plaguing Murdoch’s businesses. The mogul, cornered at brunch during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner weekend extravaganza, doesn’t seem shaken. “He’s not going to give you an interview,” says his wife Wendi, with attitude.