Osama bin Laden’s death is, for Americans and many others around the world, the biggest news since Sept. 11, 2001. So who broke the story?
We could make the case that it was Twitter user Sohaib Athar, a self-described computer consultant who happened to be awake at 1 a.m. Sunday when U.S. military helicopters descended on the terror leader's hideout, near Athar's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He reported "a huge window shaking bang" and added, "I hope it's not the start of something nasty."
American officials later reported that one U.S. helicopter went down during the operation, due to mechanical problems. There were no injuries. Athar was aware of the mishap.
He reported, a few hours after his first message, that "I am JUST a tweeter, awake at the time of the crash. Not many twitter users in Abbottabad, these guys are more into facebook. That's all." In less than 24 hours, as word spread of bin Laden's death, Athar realized his life was about to change. "Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it," he wrote in Pakistan's pre-dawn hours Monday, just before President Obama appeared on television to announce the event.
Athar probably does not think of himself as a journalist, and most professional journalists probably don't consider him one either. As far as we know, he did not race to the scene or start working the phones when he became aware that something big was happening. He just reported it to the world on his Twitter feed. Working journalists would probably liken Athar to the old-fashioned tipster who might phone a newsroom when he noticed something important going on. But as social networking exchanges the newsroom for the entire world, the line between tipster and reporter starts to blur.
A more interesting question than whether Athar can be considered a journalist is why no one inside the world's major news organizations seems to have been aware of Athar's reports.
It was Sunday, of course, so a lot of newsrooms were operating on skeleton crews. And in an era when most media companies have greatly scaled back their foreign operations to cut costs, there was little chance of picking up any buzz about a large explosion followed by a military cordon in a provincial city a couple of hours from Pakistan's capital. At most, it would have looked like just another terrorist attack, perhaps aimed at Pakistan's military and its training facility in Abbotabad.
There have been many such attacks. But a little checking would have turned up the suspicious facts that the Pakistanis themselves seemed to know little about what had happened, and were saying even less. Nor were there any of the usual claims of responsibility from publicity-seeking terror groups. Nor was there a report from a local hospital about casualties, nor the typical rush of relatives to the scene in search of news about loved ones.
The news began to leak only an hour or two before Obama spoke, when the White House started briefing congressional leaders and overseas allies. Most of the reporting resulted from anonymous government leaks, followed by statements released in the press rooms at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.
Press rooms are not where news really happens. Government announcements need to be covered, of course, but real news happens out in the field. It's difficult and often dangerous to get at that news, and many journalists take great risks to do it. A little over a week ago, British filmmaker Tim Hetherington and American photographer Chris Hondros were killed in Libya. And just a few hours before Sunday's announcement, CBS News reporter Lara Logan described her ordeal at the hands of an Egyptian mob in an appearance on 60 Minutes.
On Saturday night, Obama paid tribute to the journalists who have been kidnapped, abused and killed covering news around the world. "No one should be silenced," the president said. "That's what you do. And at its best, that's what journalism is."
The emergence of Twitter, Facebook and other technologies has populated the planet with 7 billion tipsters — or is that 7 billion journalists? Much of what we know about day-to-day events in Libya and Syria right now, in Egypt a few months ago, or in Iran after its fraudulent 2009 election, came from ordinary citizens with the courage to take even graver risks than most foreign correspondents will ever face, in an effort to give the world the truth.
During the Vietnam War, most of the routine, daily war coverage came from reporters in Saigon who attended the U.S. military's daily briefings, nicknamed the "five o’clock follies." Day after day, month after month, generals reported that America was winning the war, killing far more enemy combatants (though we didn't yet use that phrase) than the losses we sustained. Sooner or later, the Communists seemed bound to run out of fighters.
The story was different on the battlefields. Sometimes a daring journalist would risk the Pentagon's ire by going off the reservation and reporting that we were just capturing ground by day and handing it back by night, and that many Vietnamese (those profiting from the war aside) were not enthused about the democratic government we were supposedly fighting for. Even so, it took a long time for something other than the government line to penetrate the public consciousness.
Would it be otherwise now? I think so. Vietnam would have looked a lot different if we could have seen it through the lenses of thousands of smartphones scattered around the country. Facts move much faster these days, and they move through different channels.
In the end, it is no surprise that a Pakistani computer guy gave us our first news of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The welcome news was a long time coming, but once it arrived, it got here awfully fast.