“So I’m told by a reputable person, they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn,” he tweeted.
Urbahn’s pithy missive was the first credible public report about what became one of the biggest breaking news stories in years. Viewers didn’t hear it on CNN or Fox News until some 20 minutes later. The cable networks certainly had an inkling — Urbahn said he got his information from “a connected network TV news producer” — but in this case the usual dogs didn’t bark until after Urbahn had sent a message that was re-tweeted around the world.
Urbahn, in effect, scooped the major news networks because he could. Wary of going with a huge story with piecemeal confirmation, mainstream news outlets held back what they believed they knew Sunday night until they had it cold.
The cable networks’ excess of caution not only reflected a basic lesson of journalism — nail down the facts before reporting them — but some recent experience. In January, following the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), several news organizations, principally NPR and CNN, reported that she had died, leading to a series of public apologies.
It wasn’t going to happen again.
“With something this significant, our rule is a simple rule: Better to be right than first,” said Sam Feist, the executive producer of CNN’s coverage on Sunday night. “We saw the Twitter traffic, but on a story like this, we have to be right.”
Many of CNN’s journalists suspected that bin Laden was going to be the subject of President Obama’s unusual address to the nation when the White House alerted the press corps at 9:30 p.m. that the president would speak within the hour.
The network’s staff began pulling video of bin Laden and maps of Pakistan and Afghanistan as White House reporter Ed Henry and anchor John King raced into position from the Verizon Center, where they were watching the Caps — who lost the game. Anchor Wolf Blitzer, who came in from his home in Potomac, appeared on the air about 10:15 but held off on spelling out his “strong suspicion” about what the announcement might be.
MSNBC also held off. While on the air, reporter Mike Viqueira was alerted by his NBC colleague, Pete Williams, that administration officials were leaking the topic of Obama’s announcement. But Viqueira seemed to vamp for time, telling viewers he had been instructed to hold off.
The delay created several moments of high tension as viewers switched on their sets, waiting for news that was only being hinted at. The broadcast networks, meanwhile, sailed along obliviously, sticking with shows such as “CSI: Miami” on CBS and Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC.
Finally, about 10:35, with no sign that Obama was about to appear, reporters received confirmation about the outline of his speech from sources in the White House and Congress. Cable news outlets reported it first, followed 10 minutes later by the broadcast networks, which broke into their regular programming.