Obama, bin Laden, and the media: Telling the story, controlling the images
Appearing on 60 Minutes, President Obama told Steve Kroft that the mission to kill Osama bin Laden was “a 55/45 [percent odds] situation. I mean we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been some significant consequences.” The President noted that “the most difficult part [of the mission to kill bin Laden was] always the fact that you’re sending guys into harm’s way and there are a lot of things that could go wrong. So my biggest concern was if I’m sending those guys in and Murphy’s Law applies and something happens, can we still get our guys out?”
There was a certain symmetry to the President’s appearance on 60 Minutes. It was one week since his dramatic announcement, last Sunday night, of the overseas mission and its success. And the choice of media venue was significant: At a time when network news shows are supposed to be declining in popularity, 60 Minutes remains a safe haven for any newsmaker of a certain stature who wants to get his or her message across with the maximum audience and the minimum of reportorial interference.
The Obama interview occupied all but the Andy Rooney segment of 60 Minutes, and while fascinating, it was also obvious that there were, as in most TV news interviews of this kind, topics agreed upon in advance that would not be discussed.
Since the killing of bin Laden, certain indelible images — as well as the lack of them — have begun to shape this story, and therefore its history, and this 60 Minutes interview became a part of this ongoing narrative.
There was, for example, the widely scrutinized photograph taken in the White House Situation Room as the President, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden, among others, watched the operation in real-time.
Much was made of the ferociously intense stare Obama was giving the screen; even more of the hand-to-mouth posture of Clinton, which was widely interpreted as a gesture of horrified interest, or some other sort of emotional reaction. Clinton was subsequently quoted as saying she may have simply been suppressing a cough.
The point is, we invest images with meanings we bring to them, to fit what we’d like to believe is happening. In that case, some of us want to think that the tension in the Situation Room was almost unbearable, with a slight subtext of sexism — i.e., it’s the woman in the room who reacted with the most emotion.
The Saturday release of videos confiscated from bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout are mesmerizing, and only partly for their lack of audio (our government decided to delete the verbal content, not wanting to spread the inflammatory messages they are said to contain). They show a bin Laden with a gray beard, and thus emerged the factoid that he dyed it black to tape his propaganda appearances, a vanity move to make himself look more youthfully vital than he was.
The desultory clicking of the TV remote, flicking back and forth between taped images of himself and glimpses of our president suggest… what? That bin Laden was keeping tabs on American policy toward his terror network? That he was indulging in some self-criticism about his own TV appearances?
Then there is the absence of certain images, which yields its own, often contradictory, implications. The decision by the government to deny public release of any photographic evidence of bin Laden’s corpse with the stated idea that such images might, as the President said on 60 Minutes, “serve as an incitement, a propaganda tool, [and present] some national security risk.”
Predictably, however, this withholding of the photographs, along with the burial of bin Laden at sea, has inevitably provoked conspiracy theorists — “deathers,” Glenn Beck has called them. All this past week, Beck used his Fox News Channel show to make disgraceful comments, such as asserting that our government’s decision to give bin Laden a burial at sea was “like Timothy McVeigh being buried in Arlington Cemetery.” And on Thursday, what did he call the President’s visit to New York, to speak with police officers, fire-fighters, and families of people who had relatives die on 9/11? Beck called the visit “a national tragedy” and “despicable.” This man cannot leave the air too soon.
One purpose of the President’s interview on 60 Minutes would have been to quell such foolishness. But more significantly, it filled in a few more details in a story about which we cannot get enough, a true tale of bravery and success on the part of both our military and our government. It also served another media function — it helps to re-set the news agenda, to push to the margins, if only for a little while, so much of the petty domestic political squabbling that dominated the news before last Sunday.