Broadcast newsies went into hyperdrive Sunday night as word spread around 9:45 p.m. ET that President Obama was about to announce the death of Osama bin Laden in a live address to the nation.
“Justice has been done,” Obama declared in his 10-minute address in which he described the covert operation that killed the Al Qaeda leader earlier in the day. As a roaring crowd gathered outside the White House gates, Obama called on the nation to summon the sense of unity the prevailed in the days after the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
In a story that sounds tailor-made for a Hollywood thriller, Obama said that last week he authorized a “targeted operation” aimed at a compound deep inside Pakistan. He said a “small team of brave forces” engaged in a firefight and subsequently “took custody” of Bin Laden’s body.
The President said that none of the U.S. forces were injured in the operation. Obama said information that lead to the attack stemmed from a lead that U.S. intelligence officials received last August.
The White House pool report issued a bulletin about a possible presidential statement as early as 10:30 p.m. ET. The Big Three networks broke into primetime programming between 10:45 p.m.-10:50 p.m. with the stunning news, albeit attributed to sources. Obama ultimately began his address at 11:35 p.m. ET.
While waiting for the President’s statement, the major news outlets scrambled to get top anchors to the studio and experts on camera or at least on the phone. CNN contributor Gloria Borger offered her thoughts on the historic news of Bin Laden’s death while periodically checking her Blackberry for more details from sources.
The jubilant throng that gathered outside the White House gates offered dramatic visuals as people chanted “USA,” waved American flags and sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The epic breaking news of Bin Laden’s death, with all its worldwide implication, comes barely 72 hours after the major news nets marshaled all of their resources for coverage of Friday’s royal wedding in London. Producers and correspondents were hastily called to work late Sunday on a mega story that suddenly made the royal nuptials seem like small potatoes.
Although the capture or killing of Bin Laden has been a top priority for the U.S. since Sept. 11, the confirmation of his death comes hand in hand with ominous threat that his supporters may seek to avenge his death with attacks on U.S. or Western targets. The question of “what now Al Qaeda” will surely be a primetime focus of what is likely to be saturation media coverage of the aftermath of Bin Laden’s demise during the next few days.
Obama was careful in his address to distinguish between the terrorism of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and the Muslim world, especially at a time of civil unrest in the Middle East. His stentorian tone belied any trace of gloating or bragging about the successful U.S. operation.
The U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam,” Obama said with gravitas in his address. Bin Laden “was not a Muslim leader – he was a mass murder of Muslims. His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” he said.
Ironically, the timing of the Bin Laden breaking news wreaked havoc with one of Obama’s most vocal detractors, possible GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump. The final minutes of the two-hour edition of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” were preempted on the East Coast.
On the West Coast, CBS and NBC resumed regular programming shortly after Obama finished his address. ABC stayed with live news, bumping the start of “Desperate Housewives” to 10 pm instead of its regular 9 pm slot.
CBS started the regularly skedded seg of “Amazing Race” at 9, rather than its regular 8 pm slot, and bumped “Undercover Boss” to 10 pm. The Eye ran a scroll noting that regular 10 pm drama “CSI: Miami” would air “at a later time.”
NBC resumed at 9 pm with the regularly skedded “Celebrity Apprentice.”