Well, it’s common practice when we do obituaries of politicians or celebrities to call them up and ask for final interviews. Obviously that wasn’t going to be an issue here. We had to rely on past interviews, particularly the interview that John Miller of ABC News had done of Osama, I think that was the first one. There was one book, I believe Peter Bergen’s book was out at the time, and I remember consulting that a lot. That was one challenge—there wasn’t a lot of scholarship out there at the time. But keep in mind we had also done a three-part series on Al Qaeda earlier that year, we had written about this in the paper in 2001, so we did have some of that knowledge and background.
But some other things, for instance, we don’t know when bin Laden was born—even the scholarship over the last ten years doesn’t agree on when he was born—most people seem to agree that it was March 1957, but Steve Coll puts it at 1958. And we don’t know when his father was born. There’s also a lot of debate over how religious bin Laden’s father really was, how well bin Laden knew his father, how much of an influence he was. With all of those things, you can’t go to someone and say, “What was the most influential element in your childhood?” You can’t ask any of those questions. So we were relying a lot on interviews he had given, but also on interviews with CIA agents who had investigated him or profiled him. You never like to use secondary sources, but that’s what we had to rely on.
I did a review of obituaries that I saw on Sunday night and Monday for CJR, but I noticed that there weren’t actually that many out there. A lot of articles that came out about bin Laden’s death included some biographical information, but they weren’t slated as “obituaries” per se. What’s your opinion on that?
Right, well, this is one of the questions that I had in the intervening years—the question of whether this person merited this huge obituary anymore, or whether this would all be sort of subsumed into a larger story about his death, but that we wouldn’t have a full-blown obituary. In 2001 when this was first written, it was probably unthinkable that we wouldn’t have something really big about who he was, because at the time, people didn’t really know a lot about him. So some of this may have to do with the fact that this came late on a Sunday with very little notice—we didn’t know it was coming, so it was a great luxury that we had this, and we probably weren’t going to say, “We’re not going to run this.” It helped us to create a front page that was completely bin Laden.
I can’t speak for other papers, but there’s probably an element of thinking, “Well, we’re not going to get him, so this isn’t a pressing issue.” There may also be a certain amount of, as you say, we give obituaries to people like Elizabeth Taylor and Gerald Ford—is this someone that we really want to know more about? But I think a lot of people read obituaries to learn something about life, about how the world works, about what individual stories tell us about some universal idea. So in that way, I think it’s absolutely right decision to have an obituary for bin Laden.
I guess I can also imagine some outlets saying, Well, maybe people might want to know more about bin Laden, but we also don’t want to “honor” him with an obituary. Although most of the obituaries I have seen have handled it very well—it has to be a very subtle thing.
Right, it’s not “He was a great father to his children .”
Exactly. But it’s a biography, and he’s an important part of history.