- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

It has become the perennial "Osama bin Laden whereabouts" story. For months, the press has pondered his fate pestering officials, connecting conspiratorial dots and plying insiders for clues.
Bin Laden's "whereabouts," in fact, has been covered in 992 newspaper stories, 24 magazine accounts and 510 news-wire reports in the past six months, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.
"The search for Osama has become a global game of 'Where's Waldo,' and the media is hooked. Finding Osama would provide them with the dramatic conclusion to the narrative they've been writing," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Bin Laden has been declared dead, injured, sick, undergoing dialysis, alive and well, encouraged, discouraged, dangerous, reviled, admired and no longer a threat. His "trail has gone cold" or "the noose has tightened," depending on the account enhanced by mysterious bin Laden home videos and handwritten letters.
Recent stories found bin Laden either in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan or at a clandestine computer keyboard, e-mailing an Arabic newspaper. While U.S. and Pakistani officials dismissed both claims, the newspaper's editor said the correspondence was "extremely genuine," according to the British Broadcasting Corp.
"It is a weekly occurrence," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said last week. "We get reports that they're here, we get reports that they're there. We get reports that bin Laden's alive, and we get reports that he's dead. But we just don't know."
For his part, President Bush told reporters in mid-March that bin Laden was "marginalized." Other officials have said he is alive, but refused to speculate without hard evidence, leaving the media to spin their wheels and seek content elsewhere.
Accounts of bin Laden sightings usually start small and end with a flourish. Opinions from Afghan tribesmen, bin Laden relatives, former military officers, academics and stringer journalists make their way from sometimes obscure sources to the mainstream media via Internet or broadcast, often within 24 hours.
Defense and intelligence officials, meanwhile, fret that media-savvy terrorists could use this eclectic mix of news and extrapolation, planting disinformation or even communicating with cronies.
In past months, the press claimed bin Laden had undergone extensive plastic surgery, a story that became particularly piquant after U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets over Afghanistan in January, showing a new, smiling Osama in a beige Western-style suit and moustache, bearing the motto, "The murderer and coward has abandoned you."
Fox News also reported that the terrorist might have six look-alike decoys in circulation to "elude U.S. forces at every twist and turn."
One bin Laden ex-wife told a Russian television network last December that he planned to commit suicide on live TV to signal a terrorist attack on several Western cities. In February, the press reported that bin Laden was duped into buying "fake uranium," prompting a spate of fearful sidebar stories on "dirty" radioactive bombs.
Other coverage chronicles the terrorist's escape to freedom, often by unorthodox means.
Western and Middle Eastern news organizations reported that bin Laden left Afghanistan on horseback, by helicopter, in a military cavalcade, in the hold of a rusty old freighter or via a Toyota Corolla, in the company of top aide Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Some accounts claimed he is still on home turf holed up on "Ghyreki Mountain, six hours by donkey from Tora Bora," according to the Independent, a British newspaper. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that bin Laden and his forces might be hiding on "Mister Bill Ghar, or Mr. Bill's Mountain," 20 miles south of Khost, in Afghanistan.
"In a war that has devolved to routine, the hunt for Osama gives reporters a sexy story about an elusive criminal mastermind," media analyst Mr. Felling said. "But it's gotten self-parodying to a point. Osama gets spotted more often than Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster combined."


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