The details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of a decade ago — now far enough back in history that you have to explain them to middle-schoolers who barely recall that day — were and still often are described as being “like a movie.”
So, too, came a movielike hour of drama on television late Sunday, as the broadcast and cable news networks scurried into frenetic, even exciting action on the very rare news that President Obama was preparing a live address, sometime at or after 10:30 p.m. (and we were still waiting at 11:30 p.m.), which turned out to be the victorious, long-awaited news that the architect of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden, had been killed in Pakistan.
It seemed, for a moment, as though what began with 9/11 would also end like one of those action movies in which the president breaks such news to the nation on live TV. Of course, no news like that can be contained in one dramatic scene. Not anymore.
The facts were leaked and tweeted and finally confirmed about 10:40 p.m. — from CBS to NBC to a news alert from the New York Times. Bin Laden, dead. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer seemed to know before it was known — only just — but mistakenly veered for the high road and refused to spread unconfirmed reports. But others got it minutes ahead. David Gregory reported it on MSNBC — looking strangely lit from below on a darkened NBC News set, as if holding a flashlight at a campfire.
It was striking to see this sort of mad dash happen in our hyper-wired era. It was possible that the media could have been caught off guard. CNN was showing a special about Alzheimer’s disease; MSNBC was on its usual weekend autopilot, with a report called “Sex Slaves U.K.” So TV had to move fast and, by and large, showed that it can still rise to the occasion.
The White House knew something — something big, something about national security and not about Libya — and for 20 or 30 exhilarating minutes, no one else knew. Instantly, the nation’s adrenaline spiked. It was a scary night in Washington and on TV that quickly gave way to a sense of relief and celebration.
And, in a bit of karmic balance, the nail-biting act of standing by for the president’s speech interrupted Sunday night’s episode of Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
The news was freighted with symbolism and questions. While waiting for the president’s delayed speech, CNN went to the White House gate, where people gathered and chanted and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
At last, at 11:35, the president walked into the East Room and said:
“Good evening. Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world . . .”
It felt like years ago, when you couldn’t stop watching what was happening. It had been a long time since the nation stayed up all night waiting for more news.