Media, Stop Measuring Kayla Mueller’s Death Against ISIS Lies

Especially now that Kayla Mueller is confirmed to have been killed, we must treat ISiS' claims about her death as the lies they are, and not the yardstick against which we measure the truth.

Since Friday, 26 year-old aid worker Kayla Mueller's family, and most of America, have been waiting for news of her fate after terrorist army ISIS claimed she had been killed in a Jordanian airstrike. Over the weekend, the Mueller family received confirmation of her death in a message from her captors, reportedly with a photo that U.S. officials have verified. In a written statement Tuesday morning, President Obama said, "ISIL is a hateful and abhorrent terrorist group whose actions stand in stark contrast to the spirit of people like Kayla," and promised that "the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla’s captivity and death."

At Tuesday afternoon's White House daily briefing, an emotional Josh Earnest explained that while intelligence officials have verified evidence of Kayla's death, there was no indication of either the time, manner, or cause of her death. What's disturbing is the follow-up question Earnest got, and would get several more times at the briefing:


"Do you know if they were able to rule out whether she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike on Friday, which is what the Islamic State has claimed?"

This follows several days in which all news outlets reported the claim that ISIS made, that a Jordanian airstrike ended Kayla's life, along with what I'm sure what they thought was healthy skepticism. Even Earnest gave some detail about the actual airstrikes in an effort to form some kind of judgment about the claims, but also noted several times that no matter what facts emerge, it is ISIS who are responsible for her death.

None of that is really good enough, because as bullshitty as we all know ISIS' story is, and as much as we all point out how they just spent a month lying to Jordan by negotiating for the release of a guy they had already killed, and how their explanation is predictably convenient propaganda that is also predictably absent the copious documentary evidence that all of their other killings have included, the murderers of Kayla Mueller are still getting to set the terms for all of the reporting to follow. Thus, now that Mueller's death has been confirmed, ISIS' story now has to be "ruled out," when it should be ruled out by default.

This is a weakness of journalism, because we really have no way to deal with the combination of a fact vacuum and an obvious lie, so we report the allegation, then report whatever facts there are to suggest its truth or untruth. In a situation like this, with such obvious and clumsy propaganda outlines, ISIS' claim should be reported as a de facto lie, an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary proof, and which is otherwise assumed to be a lie.

In years past, journalists would have had more of a chance to decide which claims to report and which to ignore, but in the social media age, ISIS will get their story out regardless, and so journalism should adapt. A Nazi propaganda leaflet would never have been published in a newspaper as a news item to be factually judged, yet that's essentially how we treat ISIS' story, and other things that can just get "out there" on social media and become one more side of a story. You can't be neutral in the face of an obvious lie, or you give the lie a natural advantage. We must all start with the truth, that ISIS killed Kayla Jean Mueller, and work from there.

Here's the full text of President Obama's statement (via email from The White House):

Statement by the President on the Death of Kayla Jean Mueller

It is with profound sadness that we have learned of the death of Kayla Jean Mueller. On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I convey our deepest condolences to Kayla’s family – her parents, Marsha and Carl, and her brother Eric and his family – and all of those who loved Kayla dearly. At this time of unimaginable suffering, the country shares in their grief.

Kayla dedicated her life to helping others in need at home and around the world. In Prescott, Arizona, she volunteered at a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. She worked with humanitarian organizations in India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, compelled by her desire to serve others. Eventually, her path took her to Turkey, where she helped provide comfort and support to Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes during the war. Kayla’s compassion and dedication to assisting those in need shows us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on.

Kayla represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world. She said: “Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree. We have many people to thank for these freedoms and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.”

Kayla Mueller used these freedoms she so cherished to improve the lives of others. In how she lived her life, she epitomized all that is good in our world. She has been taken from us, but her legacy endures, inspiring all those who fight, each in their own way, for what is just and what is decent. No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla’s captivity and death.

ISIL is a hateful and abhorrent terrorist group whose actions stand in stark contrast to the spirit of people like Kayla. On this day, we take comfort in the fact that the future belongs not to those who destroy, but rather to the irrepressible force of human goodness that Kayla Mueller shall forever represent.