Osama bin Laden: A wild 'news' ride on Twitter

For me, this was the defining moment in a wild Sunday night ride across the Twitter frontier as news of the death of Osama bin Laden spread: Shortly before 11 p.m. more than a half hour before President Obama would tell the nation that bin Laden was dead, I was reading a tweet from "GhostOsama."

"Well this sucks," the writer pretending to be bin Laden's ghost wrote, "I accidentally enabled location on my tweets."


The news wasn't even officially announced, and already the postmodern irony gang was beyond the headline and into the post-news satiric commentary. The last time I checked, GhostOsama had 1,900 followers -- and I was one of them.

Much has and will be written about this monumental story "breaking" on Twitter Sunday long before even cable TV had it. I say monumental because as huge a place as we all knew 9/11 to hold in the national psyche, I didn't realize until I saw people in their 20s singing, dancing and cheering outside the White House at midnight what it meant to that generation.


In elementary, middle or high school when the attack took place, it was the first time kids of that generation realized the adults in their lives couldn't protect them from some things. And they were traumatized. Last night, they were able to let some of it go, and in addition to the cable news and network cameras, there was a sea of iPhones and digital cameras there to capture it.

But this post is about media, not culture and the national psyche. And there was lots of media to chew on Sunday starting shortly after 9:45 p.m when the White House announced that President Obama was going to address the nation later in the night -- a rare event at that hour.

Twitter went nuts.

One of the most fascinating patterns to watch: For all the talk of social media bringing us together, many of the early tweets showed how locked each of us is into our own concerns and interests -- and the lack of perspective between those concerns and the larger world.

Many of the early tweets complained about the White House possibly interrupting Sunday night TV viewing choices the rest of the night.

And some speculated that the President was doing it to disrupt Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" -- a way of "getting back at Trump," as one tweet put it, for Trump's reckless birther allegations against the president.

My favorite was from Domonique Foxworth, of the Baltimore Ravens: "Whats with all the suspense Mr. President? I really hope it's good news. Maybe he'll lift the lockout," Foxworth24 wrote.

The punctuation is his, but here's my two cents: "Hard as it is to believe, there are some things even bigger than the NFL, Domonique.

But here's one of the points I am most trying to make: Forget all the talk about who "broke" what and when they did it. With Twitter, the definition of "breaking" news has totally changed -- if there even is a definition any more.

With millions of people wildly speculating as they were Sunday night starting at 9:45 p.m., somebody is bound to be right. But, by and large, they are just hip shooting, spit balling, making it up -- and they are basically taking none of the accountability of legacy media for what they are saying in case it is wrong. That is a formula for media and journalistic madness, and we are all embracing it basically without question.

The tweet that many are crediting with "breaking" the news of bin Laden's death is this one from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld, when Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. At about 10:25 p.m., Urbahn wrote: "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn."

Good for him, except he went on to say: "Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is."


"Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is."

Others, like Keith Olbermann, are pointing to a tweet from Pakistan much earlier in the day. Here's what Olbermann wrote at his FOK News Channel website:

The "helicopter hovering..." is the tweet from Athar. I thank Olbermann for bringing it to the large audience, he did, including me. It is a fascinating bit of data in hindsight.

I would, though, politely disagree with what exactly was "live tweeted." Reading that tweet, what do we actually know? At the time, we don't know whether it is one more meaningless bit of information (in terms of our lives) in the overwhelming mass of worldwide data churned and burned each day -- or, perhaps, the first glimmer of a monumental event. A "rare event" in Mr. Athar's world means little to me without some context. But, of course, context is the last thing you should come looking for on Twitter when it is on fire. That's not a criticism - just a fact.

In the end, the days of "breaking" a story or "scooping" the competition are mainly gone. Maybe on a major investigation that someone has quietly done that sort of thing is still possible. But on a story like this in the lighting-flash world of new media, the "breaking" of news really is a social act. This is the one realm where the "social" in social media seems particularly apt.

Mr. Athar and Mr. Urbahn and dozens of other folks "broke" this story on Twitter -- and while I am intrigued and even think I like the social nature of that, I am troubled by the lack of accountability or context that goes with it.

I saw one tweet with a typo in it from a major news organization that said, "Obama shot and killed." Easy mistake to make with Osama and Obama. But I never saw a correction on it either.

Does anyone care about such things in the world of social media? Are experienced journalists afraid to ask such questions for fear of being considered "out of it"? Do we just drop all of our long held standards because the instant nature of Twitter is so seductive? As someone addicted to Twitter, I am not decrying it. But I wish we could think and talk about this a little from time to time between rounds of pants-on-fire crazed speculation and calls for prayers that what we are reporting is actually true (like Mr. Urbahn).

By the way, kudos to the networks and cable channels that scrambled to get people in place to broadcast and cablecast as they chased the tweets and waited for the president to speak. I spent most of my TV screentime with CNN and MSNBC. Wolf Blitzer was outstanding on CNN, and the NBC News crew of David Gregory and Chuck Todd did good work, too, in operating at or near new media speed while trying to retain old media journalistic standards.

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