Segments of the freedom-of-information community are critical of President Obama for not releasing what are acknowledged to be gruesome photos of the corpse of Osama bin Laden. The public, the argument goes, under the federal FOI Act has a “right to know” about the man’s shattered skull, and the rest of the remains, too.
The flap reminds me of a time, long ago, when the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors thundered — on behalf of the FOIA and the First Amendment — “We have a right to be wrong!”
Wonderful, I thought at the time and still do today.
What a great motto for the masthead or for the ears of the front page: “Wrong by Right/Accurate by Accident.”
As misguided as it was some 30 years ago to proclaim a “Right to be Wrong,” so it’s misguided today to spend energy fighting for a “Right to Know” about bin Laden’s shattered skull.
The declaration about a “right to be wrong” for the press ignored the fact that the First Amendment protects everyone in the U.S. for being wrong in comments about public figures and public officials. But being wrong is usually nothing to be proud of. Can you imagine taking your car to an auto repair shop that boasts, “We have a right to foul up your transmission!” Hardly a PR masterstroke.
Likewise, the arguments for release of the bin-Laden-dead-as-a-doornail (DAAD) photos. Hardly a PR masterstroke.
1. Even if the federal FOIA does mandate release of the photos, a court or government attorneys could find ways around that or Congress would rapidly provide an exemption that would make access even more difficult. It’s a lose/lose proposition.
2. There is no public interest in release of the DAAD photos, given DNA and other evidence of the demise of bin Laden.
3. Given the sorry track record of much of the press when it comes to using FOI laws to better inform the public, it is grandstanding — to say the least — to argue that the free press can better serve the public through release of the photos.
4. Any argument that release of the photos would put an end to conspiracy theories or thoughts of cover-ups is, in word, delusional.
Besides, there are more important considerations when it comes to taking out bin Laden and the attendant news coverage. For years, I’ve read news stories about how bin Laden was the mastermind behind 9/11 and how he micromanaged terrorists around the world. But Chris Hedges, former New York Times bureau chief for the Middle East, writes:
“…this presence of American imperial bases, dotted, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Doha—is one that has done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything ever orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.
“And the killing of bin Laden, who has absolutely no operational role in al-Qaida—that’s clear—he’s kind of a spiritual mentor, a kind of guide … That was bin Laden’s role. But all actual acts of terror, which he may have signed off on, he no way planned.”
Observations such as that, when it comes to press coverage of bin Laden, are more intriguing and worth more debate and discussion than any ado about the DAAD photos.