As politicians debate the impact of Osama Bin Laden's death on the war on terror, media experts had their own argument going: Did Twitter's role in revealing the news Sunday — about 45 minutes before the president announced the terrorist's killing and minutes before TV news would admit it — augment traditional media or undercut it?
Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, downplayed the significance of his 10:24 p.m. tweet, which revealed Bin Laden's death before any news outlet or other official, saying his source was a connected network TV news producer.
But every detail, from the 9:47 p.m. announcement that President Barack Obama would speak to the nation, to confirmation from a CBS News producer at 10:32 p.m. that Bin Laden was dead and his body was in U.S. custody, happened first on Twitter.
One of the best nuggets revealed: Sohaib Athar, a resident of Abbottabad, Pakistan, complained in three tweets about helicopter noise and "a huge, window-shaking bang" on Sunday. Later, he realized he had "live tweeted" an account in real time, without knowing it, of Bin Laden's capture and killing. (He now is drowning in offers from cable newschannels and morning shows to tell his story.)
"Fact: I don't own a TV set and stopped watching TV many years ago," tweeted Athar, highlighting in one message how the news reporting game had changed. "Sorry three-lettered-big-tv-news-channels for not replying to your emails."
Broadcast networks didn't break into their regularly scheduled shows for the president's address until about 10:45 p.m. On the cable newschannels, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was hinting that he knew something he was uncomfortable disclosing, while an MSNBC anchor came close to revealing the news, but also held back.
Some critics said Twitter amplified traditional media, driving people to TV for the jubilant footage of crowds celebrating the news across the United States. But this professional TV watcher barely looked at the small screen, as Twitter provided early links to video, pictures and information drawn from dozens of sources at once.
Another big problem in Sunday's reports: the similarity in Osama Bin Laden's first name and President Obama's last name. The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, ABC News, the BBC, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell and Today show host Meredith Vieira all mistakenly referred to "Obama's" death either online or in slips of the tongue broadcast live.
Overall, it was a tough night for television, as some news anchors seemed airlifted in from their beds after covering the royal wedding Friday or partying at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Dinner.
NBC's David Gregory led the early parts of the network's coverage from a Washington studio lit so sparsely he seemed to be standing at a campfire, relieved shortly by top anchor Brian Williams. ABC's Diane Sawyer and CBS's Katie Couric never appeared Sunday, leaving the coverage to their backups.
Maybe they were following on Twitter, too.
See Eric Deggans' tweets here: @Deggans; call (727) 893-8521 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.