Wednesday, May 4, 2011

News Chiefs Navigate Coverage of Osama bin Laden's Death

CNN Tops Cable News Coverage of bin Laden's Death
7.76M tune in for Obama's speech

By Lindsay Rubino -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/2/2011 4:07:19 PM

With the news of Osama bin Laden's death so broadly covered, CNN came out as the dominant cable news source on Sunday night, according to Nielsen fast nationals.

At 10 p.m., in the hour before the official announcement, 2.33 million total viewers tuned into CNN's coverage with Fox News Channel following closely behind with 2.32 million.

At 11 p.m., in the hour of President Obama's speech, CNN jumped ahead with 7.76 million total viewers; Fox News stayed behind at 4.78 million. MSNBC started at 10 p.m. with 1.09 million, and rose to 2.28 during the announcement.


At CNN, Scrambling to Prepare for an Unknown Story
With limited initial information, network prepped for multiple scenarios

By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, May 2, 2011

When CNN got word the evening of May 1 that President Obama was going to make a statement, it immediately fired up its Washington-based operations without knowing what the story was. In a May 2 interview with B&C, Sam Feist, CNN VP of Washington programming, who was the executive producer of Sunday's coverage, told us about tracking down CNN talent at a hockey game, how they prepared for several possible stories, and why they sat on the Bin Laden news for 30 minutes before reporting it. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Walk me through the timeline of events at CNN last night.

We learned from the White House at 9:40 that the president was going to make a 10-minute statement. We had no other information; we had absolutely no idea what the content of the statement was going to be. But let's be honest, the president doesn't give a 10-minute statement unexpectedly on a Sunday night unless it's important. We immediately started to fire up all of our operations in Washington and elsewhere to prepare for whatever it was, we didn't know if it was domestic or international at that time. I called Wolf Blitzer, who was at home in Maryland watching the Washington Capitals game. And I said, "Get in. Now." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I don't know, but it's important." So he grabbed a jacket and a tie and he raced downtown to CNN Washington bureau. At the same time, our chief national correspondent John King was at the hockey game with his daughter, and he raced to the Washington bureau. And our chief White House correspondent Ed Henry was at the hockey game and he raced to the White House. All not knowing what this was, we didn't know what the content of the statement was; we had no idea what the news was. Initially, as we started to run through ideas, it occurred to us that if it was international, the most likely candidates were that something had happened with Moammar Gadhafi or Osama bin Laden. But it could also be a major domestic story; we had no idea. By 10:00 we knew it was big, we just didn't know what, and by then we did know and began to report that it was national security-related around 10:00-10:10. We began to learn that it was national-security related which excluded all domestic stories but we didn't know specifically what it was. Even as early as 9:45, we began to prepare for the possibility that something had happened to either Gadhafi or Bin Laden, so we pulled video of both of them, and maps of Libya and maps of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to prepare for whatever the news was even though we didn't know what the news was, we were gearing up for something big and that was our educated guesses. We began to get from various government sources just after 10:00 that it might be Bin Laden. This is a story that's so big, that our policy is better to be right than to be first. CNN is seen in every country. It's seen by friends and enemies of the United States. In a story as big as Bin Laden, it is essential that we be absolutely certain before we report it. Even though we had more than a hunch by 10:15 that it was Bin Laden, we weren't prepared to report it as fact until we knew more, so we continued to check our sources. Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, Ed Henry, John King all had information that were pointing us in the direction of Bin Laden. Ultimately John King got a third confirming U.S. government official that gave us sufficient confidence that this absolutely was Bin Laden, and we then went on and reported it at that time [approximately 10:45]. Those three sources confirmed what Wolf, Ed Henry and Gloria Borger had, so at that point we made a decision that we had enough information to go with the story and report it.

What did you tell your talent Sunday night and Monday about how much of a celebratory tone is OK? What are your thoughts on that?

It's not for CNN's talent to be celebrating, however it was clear in their tone that it was an historic moment. You could feel the enormity of it. These are all reporters who covered 9/11. I'm not sure that the word ‘celebratory' is the right word, I think the word ‘historic' and ‘momentous' might be more appropriate. You could feel the emotion on our air and in their voices that this was a historic moment and a really important moment. We were the first network to show the spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House that literally were organic, they happened out of the blue soon after the news that Bin Laden was killed, the cameras on the White House lawn were the first to show them and it was really a remarkable moment. Our cameras were trained on this crowd that was growing and growing and growing. And then out of the blue, live on CNN we heard the crowd was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." So our reporters for a minute stopped talking and just listened. It was a remarkable moment, to see that crowd on their own, they didn't know they were on CNN, they were in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were clearly celebrating a historic moment for their country. So we conveyed that through the crowds, through what they were doing throughout the night, the spontaneous crowds that formed in Washington and also in New York at Ground Zero and at Times Square. And that was something that we went back to throughout the night, once we'd reported to news, to see the reaction from Americans particularly in Washington and New York that were so directly affected by 9/11 was remarkable. If you watched CNN last night you saw that emotion and you felt it, you felt it in the weight of the coverage from our anchors, but you also saw it from the celebrations that we were covering.

Do you think the international coverage of this story has been any different in tone?

Our coverage, CNN simulcast CNN and CNN International all night long. Wolf Blitzer anchored our coverage, and that was on all the networks at the same time. It was in many ways a joint production. All of our international resources were leveraged for our coverage, which was seen around the world. Nic Robertson, who was in Afghanistan on 9/11, was a part of our coverage. We went to Kabul to speak with our reporter on the ground, our terrorism analyst, one of the few people in the world who's interviewed Osama bin Laden, Peter Bergen. We were simulcasting the same CNN broadcast around the world. And then in the middle of the night CNN International anchors picked up our coverage and that was broadcast on CNN domestically, so it really was the same broadcast. And that continues today. Once again we're leveraging our international and domestic resources to work together on this story.


ABC News: Sticking With Bin Laden Coverage Later Than CBS, NBC An 'Easy Call'
Exec talks preempting primetime programming, the role of regular breaking news drills

By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, May 2, 2011

The news Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces may have been unexpected, but it was a scenario ABC News staffers had rehearsed for at least a dozen times over the years in mock breaking news drills. In an interview with B&C staff writer Andrea Morabito on Monday, Marc Burstein, ABC News' executive producer of special events, detailed how his team prepared in advance, how they confirmed the story, and why ABC News President Ben Sherwood made the call to continue coverage anchored by George Stephanopoulos on the west coast after the other networks signed off. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Walk me through your timeline of events last week.

About 10:00 we got word that the President has something to say, we have no idea what it's going to be, in about a half an hour. The very fact that he was going to come out on a Sunday night and make a statement, the first thought that went through my mind was that was perhaps he was coming out to announce that Gadhafi hadbeen killed or had left Libya.

But then I thought for about another five seconds, and I had also been sleeping at 10:00 because I had just finished the royal wedding coverage, and thought for a few seconds and said nah, he wouldn't come out on a Sunday night to announce Gadhafi, that's something that could certainly wait until the morning. And I literally did think to myself, I wonder if it's about bin Laden.

We routinely do drills at ABC News for major events that we think someday might happen - a capture or killing of bin Laden is something we have drilled for many, many years, over the years we've drilled many times. Just knowing that the President was coming out I jumped in the car, we conferenced in a few critical people here and discussed. We don't lightly preempt primetime programming in sweeps, so you also obviously factor that in, if the President is coming out in primetime, it's obviously going to be important.

Our reporters started learning, started getting guidance on the record and off the record that this is big and you should have an anchor in the chair and other guidance that we were getting from various places, without anybody actually telling us what it was, all signs were that this was very big. I was driving in at the time, but while I was driving in we talked with the desk and we discussed making sure we had all the right people -- we had Brian Ross we had Martha Raddatz, Pierre Thomas, Nick Schifrin, Jake Tapper at the White House - everybody just dropped what they were doing and reported immediately to their posts and started working their beats.

Pretty soon we found that we had not one, not two, but three sources telling us that bin Laden had been killed. We went on the air with that. We were on the air about an hour before the President came out and announced it but at that point there was no doubt in anybody's mind.

We had Jake Tapper and Martha Raddatz getting detail every five minutes, filling in more and more detail for the audience. And we just stayed on the air; I think we were on for two and a half hours.

We place a high premium on enterprise reporting and investigative reporting, so people like Brian Ross and Pierre Thomas who have spent decades covering this, they have sources in the intelligence community, in the military community, who were able to give us the details and make sure we got it right. There's a lot of details in a story like this that you want to be sure you don't get wrong. We wanted to make sure we got all our facts right.

What do these breaking news drills entail?

Everything. We can make believe scenarios, any event that we can anticipate; that I can reasonably think would cause us to preempt regular programming, especially no matter what time of day. We rehearse terrorist incidents, we rehearse deaths of world leaders, and we drilled in this case Osama bin Laden being captured or killed. We've done this between 10 and 20 times over the years on every different day shift. We get all the people I just mentioned. We go through great pains to say this is only a drill. This allows us to rehearse the editorial. To some extent you have to make it up but we rehearse the graphics, the sounds tapes, the clips. We do this routinely. It's partly a systems check, but it's also making sure everybody is always on their toes.

Do you have a list of pre-approved events in which you are allowed to preempt regular programming?

I don't think there's such a thing as pre-approval. The bar to enter our programming is obviously different in the middle of the day than it is in Sunday night primetime in the middle of May sweeps. You want to be sure that what you're interrupting for is worth interrupting. We don't do that blithely.

Who made the call and why to stick with news coverage after midnight?

It's a real easy call, it was only 10:00 in the west and people were still watching primetime programming. Some of them were just coming home from a spring afternoon and maybe turning on the TV for the first time. Just because it was 11:00 or 12:00 on the east coast, we're very mindful of the audience out west and we just stayed on it until 1:00. Frankly, we could have kept going, but at that point, we had reported absolutely everything we knew, we were reporting people who were joining coverage every half hour.

It's a completely difference audience on a Sunday night, on a nice spring weekend, and we wanted to make sure that anybody who was tuning in knew exactly what they were seeing when they weren't getting the shows they expected to see.


How The Bin Laden Raid Went Down (VIDEO)

As details continue to emerge regarding the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, the situation becomes a bit easier to visualize.

From the helicopter trouble to the death of the man himself, ABC News has put together a virtual visualization that sums up the events of the raid in just over a minute. Providing a few details and summarizing what is already known, it serves as a cheat-sheet to the raid.

It's not exactly CGI, but it does serve as a good visual guide to the situation.

You can check it out for yourself below.

The video also features a 3D rendering of the compound, giving some perspective on the type of building SEAL Team Six had to enter and how they handled the situation.


CBS News Chief On Bin Laden Reporting: Talks Couric, Gabby Giffords and More
News President tells B&C why the net opted for weekend anchor, Washington team for Sunday coverage -- not exiting anchor Couric

By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, May 2, 2011

CBS News President David Rhodes said his team was careful about everything they heard Sunday night regarding the reported killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. In an interview with B&C staff writer Andrea Morabito on Monday, Rhodes explained why Katie Couric, who is soon to depart theEvening News anchor chair, wasn't on the air and why the network threw to local affiliates at midnight ET. An edited transcript follows.

Did the misreporting of Gabby Giffords' death a few months ago play into when to confirm Osama bin Laden's death Sunday night?

That's a good question. Everybody went up, and we went up about 10:45. We did say right out of the gate that he was dead. I'm not sure that was everybody's reporting at that time, but that was our reporting, and we felt pretty good about it. We were pretty careful about the providence about all of what we heard last night, but not because of any special sensitivity leftover from the Giffords story; I think it was just because it was as they say such a high-value target, you wouldn't want to get that one wrong.

Take me through the timeline of what happened last night.

We had been working on some suggestion that something was up with Bin Laden before that time, so when we got that call we didn't report, but did for our planning purposes assume that that's what it was about so we were going ahead on that basis.

How was talent picked, where was Katie?

Russ [Mitchell] is the weekend anchor and was on the shortest string, so he had been in, he was suited up, so to speak. Events unfolded very fast. What the real strength last night for us was the Washington and national security coverage. We had Lara Logan, Bob Orr, Juan Zerate all part of the coverage because they were the ones pursuing this.

It was basically a very tight timetable and we were able to get on the field with a very, very good team, I thought that worked out fine and Katie was really in good shape to bring in some more reporting to support a longer program today.

Was she still traveling back from London at that point, or she just wasn't able to get in in time?

It doesn't really matter if she was able to get in or not able to get in. The thing that we were most concerned with as an organization was having the reporting that we had in there last night. If you look back from 10:45 up until the president did speak later in the 11 p.m. hour, we had more people on the story and more information about what was happening out there than anybody else.

Who made the calls at CBS and why to go back to regular programming at midnight?

We made four calls. First we did two crawls where we pushed back the network programming and crawled that we were going to do something.

The first crawl was announcing that the president would speak sometime after at 10:30 and that it would be live on CBS stations, that was very close to about 10:30, even though we'd heard at that time the remarks were probably slipping.

We did a second crawl before we came in at 10:45 to say remarks would be about bin Laden. We didn't say in that crawl that he had been killed, because we didn't have that definitively at that time, but we did say that the reason we were going to be coming in with the president was because he was going to be talking about bin Laden, so we crawled that. So that was the second push back of programming to run that across the bottom on the screen.

Went on about 10:45 and reported immediately that he had been killed, which I think was pretty aggressive, but we had that from good sources at that time, not at the White House.

The President's remarks wrapped up around 11:45 and we had a lot of reporting to wrap out of that, took that up through midnight Eastern Time and then we gave it back there.

That I saw, NBC did something similar, I know ABC provided a network program for the next hour. On the East Coast for instance, I know New York did a local program from midnight. We coordinate pretty closely with the affiliates, in the case of New York it was something they probably wanted to do because of the way that bin Laden's acts over time impacted this community more than any other.

Will you expand the Evening News the rest of this week, like you are Monday night?

One thing about recent days is I'm learning not to predict what we'll be doing the next day, so hard to say.

I'm not sure I anticipated that we would be interrupting primetime last night even given what our reporting had been, but there you go, we went up and did that for 75 minutes. Anything can happen.


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