Television news is often criticized for being sensational, overly simplified and, increasingly, politically divided. But with the story about the killing of Osama bin Laden by American troops in Pakistan, TV news had a victory of its own.
While universally acknowledging the historical significance, television coverage of Bin Laden's death resisted the temptation to become hysterical, nationalistic or overly triumphant. Instead, it focused on good old-fashioned reporting.
Every major network devoted its early Monday morning hours to providing details of the military operation as they emerged, balancing images of celebration with political analysis and interviews with those who lost loved one during the 9/11 attacks. The reports shared a common tone of solemn exuberance that both reflected and guided a nation surprised by a victory many believed would never occur.
It was a mood set early Sunday evening. As networks learned that President Obama would be making an official statement, regular programming was suspended as anchors and reporters spoke, at times with great emotion, of the unexpected and momentous news (in a particularly poignant note, CBS' Lara Logan returned to work for the first time since being sexually assaulted by a mob during the protests in Egypt.)
With no preamble, the president began by announcing: "I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
He then conjured the images of 9/11, reminding Americans of the unity they felt even in their sorrow — and the resolve that has remained even as that spirit of community has "frayed." Never one for fist-pumping theatrics, Obama maintained his unflappable demeanor, giving a deceptively simple speech that offered a brief chronology of events, but also firmly delivered some carefully crafted messages.
First, this was an American operation — one that had been planned for months. Second, the capture or death of Bin Laden had been a priority of the Obama presidency since the beginning. And lastly, the terrorist's death did not signal the end of the war on terror or as an excuse for reprisals of any sort at home. (In making this point, Obama reached not just across the aisle but also back in time to include former President George W. Bush in the achievement.)
"I must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be — at war with Islam." Obama said. "I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam."
Here was a big and shining story — after weeks of British wedding thumb suckers, after the devastating death toll in the tornado-plagued South and after the absurdity of the birth certificate controversy — rising unexpectedly on a Sunday night that gave the president of the United States grounds to say things like "we will be relentless in defense of our citizens" and "America can do whatever we set our minds to … not just because of wealth and power but because of who we are."
For the next hour, networks remained on the news, as hastily gathered analysts parsed the president's words with most underlining the historical importance of the day — "I think you have to reach back to the fall of the Berlin Wall for something of this magnitude," said David Gergen — with a collective air of almost dumbfounded excitement, which only grew as jubilant crowds converged on the White House and ground zero.
Shortly after the president's speech, NBC and CBS returned to its Sunday night programming, which was a bit jarring since the shows in question were "Celebrity Apprentice" and "The Amazing Race." Meanwhile, ABC remained on the story, producing exclusive and disturbing footage of the interior of the compound where Bin Laden was killed, complete with blood-splashed floors.
By Monday morning, every network had its troops assembled, elaborating on details of the raid, examining the international and political implications of Bin Laden's demise, and capturing the reactions at home and abroad. When the major networks returned to its regular programming, with occasional news breaks, the cable news networks continued its 24-hour coverage.
As the day wore on, the coverage seemed to be shifting and we were witnessing what will no doubt be an onslaught of "news packaging." The networks had all obviously talked to their graphic departments.
NBC produced a simplistic graphic of the raid that looked like a Lego video game, while "American exceptionalism" was heard several times on Fox News. CBS opened with a thumping soundtrack and the tag line "The Death of Bin Laden," while a local ABC station opened with an ominous docudrama-like narration of the raid.
Still, on the first day, in the early hours, television proved that even when it comes to exciting, surprising and momentous news, the key word is "news."