NEW YORK – White House reporters sharing a laugh with President Obama on Saturday night found themselves racing online and soberly appearing on camera 24 hours later to cover an East Room statement that will go down in history: Osama bin Laden is dead.
Obama addressed the American people around 11:35 p.m., almost two hours after the White House sent reporters scrambling with word of a surprise announcement that left many scratching their heads about what could be so pressing that it couldn’t wait until Monday morning.
BNA reporter Cheryl Bolen, assigned Sunday to file “pool reports” for the press corps, informed her colleagues at 9:45 p.m. that “the president will make a statement as early as 10:30 p.m.” Meanwhile, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer notified the world via Twitter that Obama would be making a major announcement, but provided no details of what was to come.
And it was over Twitter that the story exploded -- from word of a mysterious presidential announcement to early guesses to informed speculation and, eventually, to unconfirmed reports that bin Laden had been killed.
Keith Urbahn, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff, scooped the national press by tweeting around 10:25 p.m. that he’d been “told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden.”
Whether from non-journalists like Urbahn or mainstream reporters soon after, many people first learned of the U.S. firefight that killed the terrorist leader over social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and text-messaging. (Amazingly, IT consultant Sohaib Athar, who unknowingly lived near the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, actually live-tweeted the U.S. special forces attack on the al Qaeda leader without realizing what he had witnessed until tonight).
Meanwhile, television reporters and top anchors–-some perhaps getting ready for bed--headed into the cable news studios. As Obama’s announcement neared, the broadcast networks broke away from regularly scheduled programming (including NBC’s “The Apprentice”).
“I was home. You were home,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said on air. “We both came in to work our sources, to find out what’s going on.” CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry said officials told him to “just come in,” which was unusual but indicated to him that the news “is something of an extremely high magnitude.”
The cable networks, which at times leap too fast into a breaking story and misreport early on, were restrained in waiting until their reporters confirmed the news. As a result, they seemed a step or two behind the latest bit of information available on Twitter. Several TV journalists jumped back and forth between appearing on air and updating over Twitter.
But with early unconfirmed bin Laden reports floating online, some peculiar moments ensued as on-air reporters still held back from saying too much prior to an actual confirmation.
NBC’s Mike Viqueira, at one point, began reading a note sent to him by colleague Pete Williams on air that administration officials told the network what Obama would announce. But Viqueria cut himself off before breaking any news, saying he was now being told to hold off. Just a few minutes later, David Gregory told viewers that there would be a “major development” concerning bin Laden (while still not reporting his death).
Major news organizations soon confirmed bin Laden’s death, breaking the news first over Twitter and then online or on television.
CBS News producer Jill Jackson, one of the first journalists to verify the news, attributed the information to a “House Intelligence Committee aide.”
NBC, like other news outlets, also confirmed, and the network’s journalists didn’t hold back from acknowledging the significance of the historical moment.
“This is nothing less than breathtaking,” said Richard Engel, reporting from Bengazi, Libya. “This ends a chapter--the global war on terrorism that has defined a generation, which has defined the US military mission in Afghanistan and Iraq. So many people, so many soldiers have been waiting for this moment.”
And news organizations that broke the momentous news first over Twitter, like the New York Times in a tweet by reporter Jeff Zeleny, quickly shifted to an online piece while re-imagining a print edition for posterity. The Times had to rip up Monday’s front page to accommodate a six-column headline that did the huge story justice.
But hours before the Times or other newspapers hit the streets Monday, the news filtered out over a variety of media platforms. On Facebook, users described where they first heard the bin Laden news, citing Twitter, major broadcast and cable networks or via their iPhones.
NBC anchor Brian Williams, speaking over a live shot of a euphoric, spontaneous gathering in front of the White House, noted that “social media and everyone’s electronic device broke the word, at about the same time, across this country.”
“You could, if you were on the streets of an American city or town, hear the word spread from person to person,” he continued. “They got bin Laden.”