Spaces of Speculation: How We Learned Osama Bin Laden Was Dead

May 2, 2011
By | 5 Comments

At around 10pm on the east coast on Sunday May 1st, 2011, news broke online that President Barack Obama would address the nation at 10:30pm. This news surprised the American public, but it also surprised the press: they had been told earlier in the day that there would be no more appearances by the President, which meant that most of the press corps were rushing back to the White House to report on…something.

That uncertainty became a fascinating exercise in media speculation, taking place within both traditional and social media outlets. While speculation is prevalent and even natural within social media, traditional media did everything within their power to avoid such speculation; this contrast played out in the television coverage of what was eventually revealed to be the death of Osama Bin Laden in an operation led by American forces in Pakistan.

On Twitter, speculation began immediately: as soon as the pending speech was announced, my Twitter stream – and I presume most Twitter streams – exploded with predictions on what the news might involve (which included both real speculation and discussion of aliens and zombies). Social networks like Twitter are built for this kind of uncertainty, able to offer a sense of community for an announcement that fostered both interest and concern during its early moments given its sudden nature.

By comparison, while networks like CNN and MSNBC went to live coverage of the events as soon as possible, their coverage actively resisted – or at least tried to resist – any form of speculation. I was tuned into MSNBC, and watched a fascinating dance with actual news reporting. The anchors consistently emphasized that they were not speculating, even as they participated in what to my mind was speculation (such as presuming it dealt with something overseas). On CNN, meanwhile, Wolf Blitzer said that he had his own educated opinion on what the announcement was about, but he refused to reveal it to the audience (resulting in much frustration among those livetweeting the CNN broadcast).

Of course, as MSNBC was “not speculating,” Twitter was alight with actual reporting: while the actual timeline is nearly impossible to pin down, reports that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and his body recovered began to break on Twitter around 10:30pm. Two early tweets came from two different sources: the earliest I’ve found was from Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for Fmr. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who reported this news based on word from “a reputable person,” while the first media-related tweet came from CBS News Capitol Hill producer Jill Jackson based on word from a House Intelligence committee aide. These (and others) began to spread among other reporters and other news outlets, but only on Twitter.

On television, at least on MSNBC, the challenge of reporting in the digital age was on display for all to see. Mike Viqueira was live on the air trying to avoid saying anything concrete when he appeared to be handed a note, a note we presumed would include the news that we had learned ten minutes before on Twitter. However, while Viqueira initially suggested that he saw no reason not to announce this piece of news, others seemed to disagree: he was stopped in his tracks, silenced briefly while producers tried to decide how to proceed. About fifteen seconds later, they settled on revealing that the announcement would involve “a grave and serious CIA operation” – Viquiera then asked his off-screen producer if he could say it was overseas, as if the audience at home could not hear this question and learn this piece of information.

Viquiera was eventually replaced by David Gregory, who was authorized to reveal that the news involved Osama Bin Laden, but those early moments reflect the level of caution still prevalent within the media regarding Twitter and other forms of social media. I would normally applaud their caution, but there was something very strange about seeing my Twitter feed flooding with what seemed like fairly legitimate sources while MSNBC and CNN acted as if they still had no idea what was going on. And with the camera turned on Viquiera as he received that note, we saw a journalist weighing the nature of the source and the ethics of reporting it live on our television screens while other reporters were sharing this same information widely.

This evening was obviously more important than this brief moment of uncertainty: the real meaning was in President Obama’s speech, and the spontaneous gathering outside of the White House and at Ground Zero to celebrate this news, and the media discourse which emerged after confirmation was received. I am hopeful that other contributors will be offering analysis of these elements in the days ahead here at Antenna and elsewhere.

However, in this speculation we are able to see both the growing presence of social media and the traditional media’s tentative engagement with the form, as well as one of the first events of this magnitude that has taken place squarely within the Twitter era. While we will all likely remember where we were when we heard this historical news, for many the question of who we learned it from is somewhat less clear: while I learned about September 11th from a high school classmate as we walked to class after our lunch break, I learned about Osama Bin Laden’s death from an endless number of mostly anonymous individuals broadcasting news that was probably ten times removed from its original source.

It is likely much too early to properly historicize what impact Twitter might have had on how we experienced this piece of news, but it feels like an important and potentially ephemeral element of this historical moment.

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5 Responses to “ Spaces of Speculation: How We Learned Osama Bin Laden Was Dead ”

  1. Katie on May 2, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    I find this account of television media’s caution regarding the announcement strange when juxtaposed to its recent (and historical over the past couple of years) complete lack of caution in reporting other events. Over the last couple of weeks we have seen this behavior in its fullest form as televised news sources gave voice to wild speculations on the birthplace of the president (the very president they seemed to give deference to for last night’s announcement). We could find myriad other examples of a lack of caution in televised reporting over the past few years and instances in which social media was taken quite seriously–whether warranted or not. So why then was this caution exhibited last night? I think it less likely that the television news producers were hesitant about reporting on social media sources and more likely that they felt that teasing their audiences made for more dramatic and compelling narrative. The incident with Viquiera is indicative of this. They were meting out little doses of information to keep the public interested.

    • Myles McNutt on May 2, 2011 at 7:52 AM

      I think you raise an excellent point, Katie, regarding the potential efforts to narrativize this issue.

      I honestly have no way of knowing how much of this was going on, although based on other reports it seems like CNN was definitely trying to play up the mystery of the event to keep people interested. It’s also possible that the producers in Viquiera’s ear were asking him to hold off because they wanted to build suspense.

      But watching it in the moment, I would not have made the connection to the Birther issue. The choice to report “news” related to the Birther issue is as much about being starved for early 2012 campaign news as it is about the actual issue at hand, which I’d argue all networks but Fox News have never actually considered a legitimate story. There, I would argue we have the opposite of uncertainty: few doubted the President, and so they were probably more likely to report Trump’s behavior considering that it could eventually be clarified. Of course, that means risking the ugliness of it all becoming something close to fact, but that was a more calculated risk which they had time to respond to.

      Seeing the decision whether or not to report the early reports actually play out through Viquiera demonstrated something far less calculated, an on-the-fly strategy of undetermined origin. We’ll likely be waiting for a more substantial glimpse into the media response in the months ahead, or Aaron Sorkin’s ripped-from-the-headlines storyline modeled off of this event should his new HBO show about a cable news network be picked up.

      Some definite food for thought here.

  2. [...] official announcement, a period that Myles McNutt has powerfully described as a “space of speculation.” McNutt observes that people were speculating about the news on Twitter, well before [...]

  3. Erin Copple Smith on May 2, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    Wonderful piece, Myles, thanks!

    A student just told me about this story ( http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/sohaib-athar-unknowingly-live-tweets-raid-osama-bin/story?id=13506941 ) about one of Bin Laden’s neighbors tweeting about what was going on nearby without actually (of course) knowing what it was. Certainly seems to me to be an interesting piece of this puzzle–social media users have become de facto on-the-ground reporters, and often without realizing it. It’s eerie in hindsight.

    • Myles McNutt on May 2, 2011 at 1:39 PM

      Thanks for adding that link, Erin – it was on my to-do list!

      I love the idea of someone inadvertently live-tweeting history, and it was fascinating to see the mainstream media pick up on his existence – I stumbled upon it late last night, and it was mainstream news this morning. Simply fascinating.