First bin Laden reports came in tweets, as media scrambled for confirmation

May 2, 2011

A few minutes before he heard the news, Keith Urbahn was watching the Washington Capitals fight into overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs. “Ovechkin defines clutch,” he tweeted. “Unbelievable goal to tie it up.”

A few minutes later, Urbahn, the chief of staff to former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had some bigger news to report. Much bigger.

“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.

“We went with it as soon as we could confirm it and nothing more,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president. “At a time like this, the philosophy of NBC is to be right. You have to be right. This was not a night for wildly speculating. In this world of a million [news] outlets, someone is going to be first. Who cares who’s first?”

Feist said CNN was “pretty sure” what was happening about 10:15 or 10:20, when newsrooms began getting confirmation from sources on the House Intelligence Committee. He said his network was under added pressure because so many of its viewers are outside the United States. “On a story like this, the world watches CNN, and we knew that. When you’re seen around the world by friends and foes of the United States, you have a heavy responsibility to be right. We simply must be right.”

As it was, the extraordinary news and deadline pressure led to the usual minor flubs and mangled sentences on the air, with the occasional transposition of “Obama” for “Osama.” On Fox broadcast station WTTG (Channel 5), an anchor concluded at the end of Obama’s statement that “President Obama is, in fact, dead.” He quickly corrected himself after his co-anchor whispered to him. On Fox News Channel, Geraldo Rivera made a similar gaffe, saying in the middle of an interview that “Obama is dead.” He quickly corrected himself as well.

The news was so huge that the Web site for the Newseum in Washington crashed Monday morning, as thousands of people around the world descended on it looking for the images of newspaper front pages that the museum posts each day. It also cascaded into Web sites that normally pay no attention to world affairs. MLB.com, the official site of Major League Baseball, carried it Sunday night in part because the news began filtering out to fans watching an extra-
innings game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets on ESPN, setting off a jubilant scene of fans chanting “U-S-A!” in Philly’s Citizens Bank Park.

At least reporters recognized the historic nature of what they were reporting. Not so Sohaib Athar, a formerly obscure software consultant who lives in Abbottabad, about two miles from the compound where bin Laden was killed by American forces.

Athar began tweeting early Sunday morning (EDT) about helicopters hovering around his neighborhood and an apparent disturbance in the area, not realizing he was an eyewitness to one of the globe’s most important current events.

“A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt,” he tweeted. “I hope its not the start of something nasty.”

As media organizations began to besiege him with requests for interviews, Athar realized what he had been reporting.

He offered some new details about the raid at about 4 a.m. Eastern time on Monday: “The gunfight lasted perhaps 4-5 minutes, I heard. That was around 10 hours ago. There are no other gunfights that I know of.”

By 7:30 Monday morning, Athar had tired of his insta-celebrity. “Bin Laden is dead,” he tweeted. “I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” And with that, his Twitter feed went silent for several hours.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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