Re-Framing Reality: Why the News Media Made Al-Baghdadi More Sympathetic Than Trump

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“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader, to justice: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” President Trump proudly announced to the nation Sunday morning. “He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization in the world. … Last night was a great night for the United States and for the World. A brutal killer, one who has caused so much hardship and death, was violently eliminated—he will never again harm another innocent man, woman or child.”[1]

The president may have been celebrating, but our nation’s news media struggled to rejoice with him. MSNBC said the raid reveals “the flaws in Trump’s foreign policy,” called the success merely a “hiccup” for ISIS,[2] and questioned the accuracy of Trump’s comment that al-Baghdadi “died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming” before blowing himself up.[3] CNN complained about his rhetoric—such as, “He was vicious and violent, and he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying”—saying it sounded like something we would expect to hear from ISIS.[4] And the New York Times—reluctant even to refer to Donald Trump as the president—went so far as to report that the mission was a success “largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump’s actions.”[5]

The president’s enthusiasm and tenor was notably different from that of the news media—particularly the Washington Post who seemed to struggle with labeling al-Baghdadi a terrorist. The Post’s original headline read “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s ‘Terrorist-in-Chief,’ Dies at 48,” but this was apparently too harsh, and the paper quickly changed it to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Austere Religious Scholar at Helm of Islamic State, Dies at 48.”[6] Eventually the title changed again to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Extremist Leader of Islamic State, Dies at 48.”

Twitter highlighted the ridiculous nature of these headlines with an onslaught of mock Washington Post death notices designed to obfuscate the evil nature of the deceased, including:

  • Nero, emperor who helped Christians bring light to Rome, dies at 30[7]
  • Adolf Hitler, passionate community planner and dynamic public speaker, dies at 56[8]
  • Mao Zedong, who saved 20–45 million of his own people from having to suffer through the struggle of existence, dies at 82[9]
  • Saddam Hussein, successful politician, oil baron and noted tough boss, dead at 69[10]


Labelling al-Baghdadi a “conservative academic,” the Washington Post presented a sympathetic portrait of “an obscure academic, aiming for a quiet life as a professor of Islamic law” until “the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 upended his plans and launched him on a course toward insurgency, prison and violent jihad.”[11] Indeed, “acquaintances would remember him as a shy, nearsighted youth who liked soccer but preferred to spend his free time at the local mosque.”[12]

No mention was made of the three children al-Baghdadi dragged with him down the dead-end tunnel before detonating an explosive vest—killing them alongside himself. Instead, the report only briefly touched upon the violent atrocities perpetrated by al-Baghdadi and his terrorist organization. Consultant Elliott Schwartz notes that the Washington Post’s obituary “waits until the 34th [paragraph] to inform readers he was a serial rapist of hostage sex slaves.”[13]

There can be no excuse for this as the president himself reminded the nation that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provided leadership for one of “the most depraved organizations in history.” It was he who oversaw the murder of innocent Americans, the execution of Christians in Lybia and Egypt, the genocidal murder of Yazidis, forced religious conversions, the broadcasting of gruesome beheadings—including American journalists—and the burning alive in a cage of a Jordanian pilot.[14] Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, ISIS urged the group’s supporters: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European … kill him in any manner or way, however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”[15]

Given this, the Washington Post should never have begun its obituary by referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “an austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses and no known aptitude for fighting and killing.”[16] But it appears that the Post—like most other news outlets—chose to allow its preferred narrative of President Trump to taint its coverage even to the point of appealing for sympathy for the world’s most wanted terrorist mastermind. Co-anchor of Good Morning Britain Piers Morgan put it this way in an interview with Tucker Carlson:

Baghdadi ran an organization that liked to burn people alive in cages, that liked to throw gay people off rooftops, that liked to kidnap and rape thousands of women, that liked to eliminate vast swathes of rival Muslims, that bombed and massacred and shot their way around the world—committing appalling atrocities against people in Paris, in Nice, in London—killing kids at pop concerts, running people over on the promenade in Nice. Let’s not forget what this guy was. So yesterday should have been a great day for America and a great day for the world. Instead, the narrative is, let’s try and find where Trump went wrong in the way he spoke about this. Let’s try and find a way that makes Trump look bad.[17]


For nearly a decade, the United States has been hunting this terrorist because, in the first two years after declaring the new caliphate, ISIS “conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries other than Iraq and Syria, where its carnage [took] a much deadlier toll,” killing at least 2,043 people and injuring thousands more.[18] As such, Piers Morgan is correct when he told Tucker Carlson, “His death should have been a moment to celebrate a brilliant operation by American armed forces, a courageous and bold order to conduct the mission from the President of the United States, and a moment for America to show the world that when they said they’d get tough with terrorism, they meant it. And this should have been a moment to plant the flag firmly—the American flag—on that, on that stamp of, ‘We will not tolerate terrorism.’”[19]

Instead, the American news media refused to permit a president it despises even this victory. To do so would be to undermine its ongoing narrative that President Trump is a corrupt and bumbling fool who just empowered terrorists in the middle east by withdrawing American troops from Syria—something that we now realize may have been part of the planned raid on al-Baghdadi.[20] Therefore, we were immediately served a bevy of articles informing us that the raid barely survived President Trump, such as “Trump’s Syria Troop Withdrawal Complicated Plans for al-Baghdadi Raid.” Furthermore, our American news media collectively framed the news of this raid as another national crisis and our president as an uncouth barbarian for celebrating the death of this decade’s deadliest and most diabolical terrorist mastermind.

Granted, there is a place for questioning how far the president should go in celebrating the success of a long-sought military raid, along with some of the other concerns the news media has expressed. But this conversation should not be had at the expense of the truth. Sympathetic obituaries and headlines like “Leader’s Death Will Damage ISIS, but Not Destroy It” and “Al-Baghdadi Raid Was a Victory Built on Factors Trump Derides” should not be the initial lead reports as they obscure the achievement and taint the story by focusing on the president’s faults.

It seems that today’s news media cannot look past partisan politics even for a moment to allow the country opportunity to appreciate a hard-fought victory. Only a news media blinded by partisan politics would ignore the 11 children safely evacuated during the mission[21] in order to question how the president knows whether al-Baghdadi was really whimpering in his final moments. And only an agenda-driven news media would consider the president’s rhetoric to be more despicable and newsworthy than al-Baghdadi’s use of three children as human shields before blowing them to bits in his desperation.

Something is seriously wrong with our nation’s news media, and it is time we address it. This weekend’s coverage of the al-Baghdadi raid reveals that we no longer have a news media committed to objectively reporting the truth regardless of where it may take them. Instead, we have a news industry intent on controlling the narrative and crafting reality through carefully constructed headlines and selective news angles. The facts are no longer particularly relevant. Instead, truth has become relative to our nation’s news media, and reality is determined by how they choose to frame the story.

But Scripture reveals that truth is not relative, and the narratives a nation chooses to believe matter. Indeed, there are significant spiritual ramifications for a nation whose news media no longer reports the truth and whose citizenry has embraced a culture of lies. To learn about these spiritual ramifications, read Timothy Zebell’s latest book Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications, now available in paperback, Amazon Kindle, and as a free PDF download.

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Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. “Statement from the President on the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” White House, October 27, 2019.

2. Drennen, Kyle. “MSNBC: Baghdadi Raid Shows ‘Flaws in Trump’s Foreign Policy,’ Happened ‘Despite’ Him.” NewsBusters, October 28, 2019, 1:40 p.m., EDT.

3. “Tucker Carlson Tonight 10/28/19 FULL | Breaking Fox News October 28, 2019.” YouTube video, 41:11. Posted by “MUCHACHITAS DEL AMOR,” October 28, 2019.

4. Schwartz, Ian. “CNN Reporter: Trump’s Speech on ISIS Leader Death ‘Echoed the Crudeness’ You Would Expect from ISIS.” Real Clear Politics, October 28, 2019.

5. Schmitt, Eric, Helene Cooper and Julian E. Barnes. “Trump’s Syria Troop Withdrawal Complicated Plans for al-Baghdadi Raid.” Politics. New York Times, October 27, 2019.

6. Schow, Ashe. “Washington Post Changes Headline about Terrorist Leader’s Death, Calling Him An ‘Austere Religious Scholar.’” Daily Wire, October 27, 2019.

7. Kelly, Jesse (@JesseKellyDC). “Nero, emperor who helped Christians bring light to Rome, dies at 30. #WaPoDeathNotices.” Twitter, October 27, 2019, 10:41 a.m.

8. Howerton, Jason (@jason_howerton). “Adolf Hitler, passionate community planner and dynamic public speaker, dies at 56. WaPoDeathNotices.” Twitter, October 27, 2019, 8:46 a.m.

9. Howerton, Jason (@jason_howerton). “Mao Zedong, who saved 20-45 million of his own people from having to suffer through the struggle of existence, dies at 82. #WaPoDeathNotices.” Twitter, October 27, 2019, 9:00 a.m.

10. Batters, Denise (@denisebatters). “Saddam Hussein, successful politician, oil baron and noted tough boss, dead at 69. #WaPoDeathNotices.” Twitter, October 27, 2019, 12:07 p.m.

11. Warrick, Joby. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Extremist Leader of Islamic State, Dies at 48.” Obituaries. Washington Post, October 27, 2019, 9:31 a.m., EDT.

12. Warrick.

13. Schwartz, Elliott (@elliosch). “The obit also waits until the 34th graf to inform readers he was a serial rapist of hostage sex slaves.” Twitter, October 27, 2019, 8:33 a.m.

14. “Statement from the President on the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

15. Bayoumy, Yara. “Isis Urges More Attacks on Western ‘Disbelievers.’” Independent, September 22, 2014, 6:38 p.m.

16. Warrick, Joby. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Extremist Leader of Islamic State, Dies at 48.”

17. “Tucker Carlson Tonight 10/28/19 FULL | Breaking Fox News October 28, 2019.”

18. Lister, Tim, Ray Sanchez, Mark Bixler, Sean O’Key, Michael Hogenmiller and Mohammad Tawfeeq. “ISIS Goes Global: 143 Attacks in 29 Countries Have Killed 2,043.” Last updated July 25, 2016.

19. “Tucker Carlson Tonight 10/28/19 FULL | Breaking Fox News October 28, 2019.”

20. Maitra, Sumantra. “Here’s What ISIS Founder Al-Baghdadi’s Death Means for U.S. Policy.” Foreign Policy. The Federalist, October 28, 2019.

21. “Statement from the President on the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”


Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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