When Osama bin Laden sponsored the attacks against America in 2001, there was no YouTube, blogs were just rising as a medium, and TV was shaped by the aftermath of the mass killings. But the news of his death was broken last night on Twitter, a medium that didn’t exist on 9/11. Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted before TV news or the White House confirmed it, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”
Urbahn himself later tweeted that, to be fair, he wasn’t an example of social media supplanting TV; he was passing along, he said, information from a TV news producer. But his was the (apparent) first direct statement of something that TV news was buzzing about in an undertone since the sudden announcement that President Obama would make a major national security announcement at 10:30 p.m. ET.
As the address was pushed back about an hour later, cable news was left to fill in the time with excited speculation, hints and finally the revelation that bin Laden had been found and killed. Journalists went into scramble mode late last night, as word came out from the White House that a major announcement was coming. (The Sunday-night timing itself signaled that something huge was going on, though some reporters got bigger, broader hints; this morning on Today, Tom Brokaw said he pressed the White House for details and was told it concerned “someone we’ve been looking for for a long time.”)
The anxiousness to source the story and tension over not jumping the gun soon became apparent, between the lines and explicitly. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was engaging in a kind of odd semaphore, saying that he would not “speculate” and did not want to say anything prematurely, but that the announcement was definitely not about Libya, even as he conspicuously avoided saying the name “bin Laden” (which was lighting up Twitter).
On MSNBC, where NBC News eventually made its announcement that bin Laden was dead, there was momentary drama over how much of the network’s reporting was on-the-record and what could not go out over the air. (The main NBC network, ironically, was airing Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice on the East Coast—a bit of political incongruity if there ever was one, as Obama’s biggest recent critic had his reality show pre-empted for an address from the White House.) On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera beamed broadly and invited a general sitting in his studio as an analyst to high-five him.
The 9/11 attacks were another twist in Rivera’s peculiar TV career, leading him to remake himself as a Fox war correspondent (who got himself into hot water over revealing U.S. troop positions in the Iraq war). And indeed, the sudden news blitz was a kind of reminder in miniature of how the media had been remade, partly in response to bin Laden’s crimes, over the past decade. As we learned about the Navy Seal raid, there were allusions to Jack Bauer from 24—a series that was piloted and scheduled before 9/11 but might never have become a cultural icon without it.* Details about the events—or lack thereof—were carried by the news crawls that became a permanent fixture the morning of 9/11. And, as if for one last time, there was a flurry of “Obama bin Laden” flubs and typos in the broadcast coverage and online.
*(Update: I think the Bauer references—his name is still trending on Twitter as I type this—are about more than an easy pop-culture joke. It recalls something that hit me last night as the news sunk in; it is simply much more satisfying to know that bin Laden was not obliterated by a Predator drone strike, but was taken out at close range by a human. There’s something more primal about knowing that there was a human agent of justice at hand—more bluntly, it just felt better knowing that somebody popped the son of a bitch—and that was what 24 tapped into. That, and the idea of competence and effectiveness in our intelligence operations, something that sadly were didn’t always feel in reality over the last ten years.)
Along with the reawoken memories of trauma and lives lost, the news recalled the whole sweep of the media’s journey over the decade, from terror through Tora Bora, through Iraq, through polarization and contentious elections, to today. And the news reflected new light on some of the media frenzies of the last week, as it emerged that Obama had been consulting on the bin Laden action even as Trump whipped up controversy over his birth certificate last week, and reports came that the President gave the go-ahead as the press was fixated on the royal wedding.
There was one more poignant resonance to the TV coverage, on CBS News. Earlier the same evening, correspondent Lara Logan went on 60 Minutes to talk about her horrifying sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February. Late last night, she was working on her network’s air, drawing on her experience covering Afghanistan and Iraq as CBS’ chief foreign correspondent. On a night of emotional closure—if not actual resolution to the many changes spawned over the decade—it was another bittersweet moment to reflect on, even as the media machine so deeply shaped by bin Laden’s crimes buzzed away.