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Release, broadcast of bin Laden death photos inevitable

Bin Laden's FBI wanted poster taped near Ground Zero in New York.
Bin Laden's FBI wanted poster taped near Ground Zero in New York.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, the cable news networks have been filled with debate over whether the U.S. government should release photos and videos that show his demise and/or his corpse, and how the media should handle what might turn out to be rather gruesome images.

This discussion has filled a lot of air time, and it has allowed the media to engage in one of their favorite pastimes, journalistic handwringing, which allows them to toot their own high-mindedness horn. But this is a phony debate, and they know it.

The photos and video will be released. The media will publish and broadcast as much of this material as they can get away with. Bet your house, your car and your kids’ college funds on it. Here’s why:

Now that everyone knows about the existence of the photos of bin Laden and video of the raid in which U.S. forces took him out, the White House will have no choice but to release the material, though it will likely wait for a period of time to tamp down what could be seen as unseemly triumphalism in the Islamic world.

Trying to keep these images hidden would be both difficult to accomplish (Wikileaks would have to bring on some temps) and counterproductive, because it would inevitably generate speculation that could take on a life of its own. If the White House learned anything from the “birther” business, it should have learned this.

True, a few doubting Thomases and dotty conspiracy theorists won’t be swayed by photographic evidence released by the U.S. government. But keeping it under wraps will increase, rather than diminish, their ranks.

And once that material is released, the public’s interest in seeing it will drive competitive pressures inside the media to make it available, just as we got to see Saddam Hussein swing from a rope. No cable news executive or producer who wants to keep his or her job is going to resist the temptation – nor should they, because there are solid journalistic reasons to fully document all of the details of the death of a madman we hunted for 10 years.

However, in the meantime, a plea to the cable news nets: Please spare us any more of this phony debate.

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