Journalism in the Public Interest

Revisiting the Very First, Very Wrong Reports on Bin Laden’s Death

For all the news reports that have called out the Obama administration for revising, retreating, overhauling or otherwise “backpedaling on the narrative” of bin Laden’s death, it’s worth revisiting an earlier episode of error.

In the hour or so leading up to the president’s announcement, many news organizations and journalists, in a race to be first, advanced wildly inaccurate versions of a developing story—enough to create an alternate history of what happened.

CNN, for instance, tweeted that it had spoken with “congressional and administration officials” and been told that Osama bin Laden was “killed in Afghanistan.” This seemed to have been repeated by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Situation Room. It was also repeated on Twitter by former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who later corrected the mistake, calling it a “typographical error.”

Fox News International Correspondent Mike Tobin checked with news sources and tweeted that they were all in sync: Bin Laden was “killed a week ago,” he said, and the “delay was waiting for DNA match.”

The reported causes of the bin Laden’s death were also all over the board. CNN’s John King speculated that it was a drone.

ABC more than speculated—it initially attributed the reporting to its own investigative correspondent: “Bin Laden killed in the drone strike last week that killed more than 20 people, he was among them, @BrianRoss reports.” Its senior foreign correspondent tweeted the same news and later corrected.

Fox News anchor Clayton Morris tweeted that a “U.S. MISSLE STRIKE KILLED OSAMA BIN LADIN ONE WEEK AGO.” The Daily Caller tweeted something to the same effect.

That’s just to name a few. Chime in below with any we missed.


May 4, 2011, 5:04 p.m.

Man i miss real reporters! checking facts has become too expensive for the comcast/GE/Viacom?Disney gang. It cost too much. And Lord knows their stock holders don’t have enough money.

Too bad they won’t spend it on a democracy drowning in tabloid agenda driven bunk.


Cindy Hulett

May 4, 2011, 5:26 p.m.

I find it odd that the story changed, and I can’t even say I believe the newer story, but what I do believe is that the right thing was done, and America has the right to dance in the streets, just as Osama’s followers, and others did on 9/11. I don’t care that he was unarmed, as most of the people that died on that day were unarmed. I applaud the death of Osama Bin Laden, by whatever means. I am proud to be an American.

Justin Russell

May 4, 2011, 6:30 p.m.

Lot of mistakes in your report. I was watching CNN as Jon King broke the Bin Laden news. Never did he say, or speculate, that a drone killed him. Your citing some guy on Twitter doesn’t constitute accurate reporting.

I read that the Seal Team named the mission somewhere, and now I can’t find the article.  Anyone know who actually named it Geronimo?

@lissa “Geronimo” code name for OBL, was it the name of the mission as well?

News people manufacturer the news all the time, so whats new. On my TV we received word that the president was going to make an announcement at 10:30p after the news at 10:00p but instead of letting things progress at a predetermined pace the net work broke into the programs with what they thought he was going to announce. Some of it was true some of it wasn’t. So you have supposition and stories from guessing reporters with the weight of “this is the truth news”. Bologna!

I totally agree with Leslie.  The news business has become like Wall Street - only after the money.  And the first with a story gets the money.  Doesn’t matter if the story isn’t accurate or a complete lie.

I’ve stopped reading all the news outlets that existed before 2004.  Now I only read the smaller, online news outlets that have come into existence to provide the “other side of the story”.

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