New Delhi: On Sunday, US President Donald Trump announced the death of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a press conference in the White House. The international press scrambled to cover the announcement, some reporting details of the US Army’s raid in Syria that led to the death, to political analysis of the impact the move would have on Trump’s 2020 election campaign.
But one particular story published by the Washington Post grabbed most eyeballs, garnering a lot of negative attention.
The controversy began when the Post published an obituary for al-Baghdadi, written by its national security editor Joby Warrick, shortly after the announcement was made Sunday morning. The headline, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at the helm of Islamic State, dies at 48”, drew widespread outrage for how it represented the man who has often been called the world’s most wanted terrorist, with a bounty of 25 million US dollars on his head.
The first headline of the story, which some Twitter users were quick to take screenshots of, referred to Baghdadi as “Islamic State’s terrorist-in-chief”. It is unclear why the headline was changed.
They had it right the first time.
The Washington Post changed the headline on its Al-Baghdadi obituary from “Islamic State’s terrorist-in-Chief” to “austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State.” pic.twitter.com/cs243EVz7W
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) October 27, 2019
The story, which maps the rise of the ISIS leader from the time he took over the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, describes him as an “austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses” who previously had “no known aptitude for fighting and killing”. Warrick writes that Baghdadi’s acquaintances remembered him as a “shy, nearsighted youth who liked soccer but preferred to spend his free time at the local mosque”. He further wrote that under his rule, the Islamic State came to “mirror its leader: a messianic figure drawn to the harshest interpretations of Islamic texts” and detailed out Baghdadi’s educational background in Koranic recitation.
The headline was updated to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48” around 7pm (local time) Sunday.
Politicians, journalists and many others expressed their disappointment with the Post, a Pulitzer prize-winning publication that was founded more than a hundred years ago. Conservative American news network Fox News described the mishap as a “gasp-inducing headline for the ages”, while White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham wrote that she had “no words” in response to the incident.
I have no words. https://t.co/4zH9Ji0Smy
— Kayleigh McEnany (@PressSec) October 27, 2019
Every day The Washington Post uses harsher words against @realDonaldTrump than they do in writing about one of the world’s most evil terrorists. Yet we’re supposed to take them at face value. Let that sink in. pic.twitter.com/iIWVqI4N8B
— Steve Scalise (@SteveScalise) October 27, 2019
This is shocking, Washington Post. Terrorist, Murderer, Rapist who presided over genocide, mass killings, torture, conversion over years is an ‘austere religious scholar’ for you? People won’t forget this headline for years. Looks like WaPo lost a loved one. pic.twitter.com/HE38GkRPkb
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) October 27, 2019
The Post’s Vice President, Communications, Kristine Coratti Kelly took to Twitter to apologise and clarify the publication’s stance. But it seems the damage is already done, as screenshots of the headline are being widely shared on social media, with many questioning the Post’s credibility.
Regarding our al-Baghdadi obituary, the headline should never have read that way and we changed it quickly.
— Kristine Coratti Kelly (@kriscoratti) October 27, 2019
The hashtag #WaPoDeathNotices is now trending on Twitter, with many taking a shot at providing their own headlines for various contentious personalities such as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, serial killer Ted Bundy, the Star Wars character Darth Vader, and even Satan.
— Martina Markota (@MartinaMarkota) October 28, 2019
— Christopher Jacobs (@cmjacobs76) October 28, 2019
— Gad Saad (@GadSaad) October 28, 2019
Satan, unorthodox faith leader known for pushing back against famous wine maker Jesus, dies at 14 billion.#WaPoDeathNotices
— Jason Howerton (@jason_howerton) October 28, 2019