News anchor Geraldo Rivera outside the White House. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )
It was past 1 in the morning and Geraldo Rivera was nearly breathless with joy. He'd delivered the flash about Osama bin Laden's death earlier from the Fox News studio in Washington, D.C. — grinning, babbling and high-fiving his way through the moment.
Now the old showman again had the stage — exhorting a crowd of college kids outside the White House and even calling on George Washington University to postpone final exams. After all, hadn't he, Geraldo, once faced a big test (the bar exam!) the day after a big news event (the moon landing!)? "But this is bigger than that!" Fox's cheerleader in chief shouted. "This is huuuuuuuuuuuuuge!"
Rivera's late-night rah-rah session couldn't have more clearly illustrated what we should already know: that television journalism loves the noisiest, most photogenic moments — those that often tell us the least about what we really need to know.
When watching Fox and others covering Bin Laden's death beginning late Sunday, it was best to listen to the words and pay less attention to the frenetic pictures. The celebratory images suggested "mission accomplished." The words told us that the war on terror is far from over.
Not that Americans didn't have reason to be pleased. U.S. intelligence agencies had hunted down one of the deadliest bad guys in recent memory. The military whacked Bin Laden with a cold efficiency. Throw in a nighttime commando raid, a little presidential daring and what's not to like?
Still, one of the things we reviled about the Al Qaeda leader was that he not only ordered the killing of innocents but inspired his followers to celebrate death. No matter how richly he deserved his end, did we really want our media egging on demonstrators mirroring that kind of behavior?
If you watched coverage across television this week, you saw people react to Bin Laden's death in inverse proportion to how closely 9/11 touched their lives. Those closest to the hijacked jets — victims' families, surviving New York City firefighters, colleagues of flight attendants who died — greeted Bin Laden's death with solemnity. Those who came to know the terrorist mastermind mostly as a symbol — the young who grew up under the terrorist threat but didn't suffer personal losses — tended to holler, preen for cameras and carry on as if they were watching a ballgame.
"I hope I am never again this happy over someone's death," said Stephen Colbert, parodying the latter sentiments. "If I saw myself in a mirror I would be appalled by the look on my face."
As Rivera plunged through the crowd, he got a lot of expected woofing from kids in college sweatshirts. But the reporter's job in such a tumultuous scene is not just to take it all in, but to cut through the bravado, to assess the emotions underlying the demonstration.
When Rivera found a young man who'd served in the Marines, he seemed on the verge of a meaningful connection. Instead, he frittered away most of the short interview, making sure Fox viewers knew that he had been embedded with a Marine unit in Afghanistan. Rivera, the boxer, ever intent on showing us he's still in the ring.
The first couple days of news about the mission showed how slippery the facts could be. At first, some reported Bin Laden had been taken out by a bomb. We heard that he had been armed when he died. The official description briefing told us one of his wives died as Bin Laden used her as a "human shield."
None of that proved to be true in later versions. Bin Laden did not carry a weapon. The wife was shot in the leg as she charged U.S. commandos. There was no evidence Bin Laden used her as a shield.
An initial consensus over the righteousness of the mission began to fray a little — at least on the post-mortem details: Should the U.S. so quickly have buried the body at sea, without a public viewing? Why hadn't it released photos of the dead Bin Laden?
More than the 48 hours after President Obama announced the extraordinary raid, serious journalists of the war on terror would assess what comes next. They seemed to be coming to a consensus that Bin Laden's death, while a significant milestone, would not eliminate the threat facing America.
Writing in the New Yorker, former Washington Post journalist and New America Foundation President Steve Coll said Al Qaeda's decentralized nature made it less susceptible to the loss of its top leader. The group's ideology won't be so easily dismantled, even if Bin Laden's replacement struggles, he said.
Lawrence Kaplan, a contributing editor for the New Republic, said Americans "have a unique tendency to personalize foreign threats." Al Qaeda's anti-Western creed will not disappear in a flash. "Bin Laden was a sick bastard," Kaplan wrote. "But he also created a generation of sick bastards. They're still here."
Near the end of his wild and crazy night on the town, even Rivera seemed to be caught in a fleeting moment of reassessment.
He's just made his pronouncement about Bin Laden's death being bigger than the moon mission. But pausing to take a breath and flip the story back to anchor Bret Baier, Rivera added: "I don't know if this is bigger than the moon landing. But this is huge, Bret."