The news output will only expand in the coming days, and as it does, remain skeptical about it. As we know from the coverage of other major breaking-news events—the Mumbai massacre, the death of Pat Tillman, Hurricane Katrina, the rescue of Jessica Lynch, to cite just a few examples—the earliest coverage of a big story is rarely reliable.
And yet it's often the earliest false details that get sustained in the persistent mythology. I'm reminded of this every time I hear someone refer to the supposed box cutters used on 9/11 or babies raped in the Superdome.
Some early falsehoods that become persistent myths are so far off base that one wonders if they've been spread deliberately. For example, here's Obama's description of the raid from his Sunday night address to the country.
A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
The way that's phrased, it very strongly implies that an armed Bin Laden was shooting back at his attackers just before he was killed. But no, that's apparently not how it happened.
Carney, relying on a written narrative from the Department of Defense to set the record straight, said that:
_ Bin Laden wasn't armed when he was shot.
_ A wife of his was shot in the leg, not killed as originally reported.
_ Bin Laden didn't use her as a shield before he was shot. She rushed at a U.S. attacker but she wasn't armed.
_ Two helicopters were used in the raid.
_ The raid lasted 40 minutes.
_ In addition to bin Laden and some of his family members, two other families were at the compound in Abbottabad, about 35 miles from the capital of Islamabad. One family was in a separate structure. Another was on the first floor of the main building.
_ On the first floor, two al Qaida couriers were killed, as well as a woman who wasn't bin Laden's wife and who apparently was caught in the crossfire.
_ Bin Laden and his family were on the second and third floors. His wife was in the room with him. She was shot first, then he was shot and killed.
_ U.S. forces were operating under a "capture or kill" order for bin Laden, not shoot-to-kill, according to Carney and the Defense Department narrative.
Carney said bin Laden resisted capture, but he declined to specify how. He said "resistance does not require a firearm" and that others in the compound were armed and there was a firefight.
It remains to be seen what the actual definition of "resistance" turns out to be in this case but clearly Obama's coupling of the (also ill-defined) "firefight" with the killing of Bin Laden is an attempt to spread a false understanding of how the thing happened. I'm betting the "human shield" myth is the one we have the most difficult time getting rid of. Well that and this animation of the raid on the Bin Laden compound released by an anonymous White House source late Sunday night which we now know also to be bogus.
Also: Pakistani government now challenging the term "firefight"
A Pakistani official challenged the US account of a firefight at the compound, saying: ''Not a single bullet was fired from the compound at the US forces and their choppers. Their chopper developed some technical fault and crashed and the wreckage was left on the spot.''