Two questions will be asked now: "Where were you when the towers fell?" and "Where were you when Osama was killed?" Like most people, I learned about 9/11 from a television set. I learned about Osama's death from a push notification on my iPhone, and went to Twitter.
Twitter broke it first. "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot Damn," Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld's current chief of staff, wrote five minutes before President Obama was scheduled to speak. (His source, he would disclose later on Twitter, was "a connected network TV producer.") I wrote him: Why Twitter?
"My first reaction was to tell my wife the unconfirmed, but startling news," he wrote back. "The second reaction was to tweet it. Given my source's media connections, I assumed that the rumors about bin Laden's demise were already swirling on TV and in the twitterverse."
Rumors were swirling, but Urbahn's tweet confirmed them. In no time, it went viral, and Urbahn rushed to qualify his statement: "Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is."
Meanwhile, the long wait for the president—who was originally supposed to speak as early as 10:30 p.m. ET, but didn’t actually go on TV until over an hour later—was agonizing, especially for someone like me without a television. CNN.com was not providing a live feed of CNN programming. Again, to Twitter, where someone had provided a link to a blog, ProducerMatthew.com, that was streaming CNN. There was Wolf Blitzer who, after the President's speech, would express disbelief that bin Laden had been "found" in a mansion outside of Islamabad, rather than "in the mountains" somewhere
As a medium, television seemed pathetic. Months earlier, a Pakistani friend told me it had long been common knowledge that bin Laden was living a comfortable life in or outside of Islamabad. Somehow, he re-emerged into our collective consciousness last night as though he had been waiting in the wings for his cue. On CNN, the narrative–Why haven't we caught Osama?–was forgotten. What took ten years longer than it should have for a country that boasts our level of intelligence was an instant victory. Outside the White House, at the site of the World Trade Center, in Times Square, the United States had, for the first time ever, won the World Cup. Flags. Songs. Champagne.
Everything happened on Twitter. Not only the announcement of Obama's speech and Urbahn's 10:25 tweet and the link to CNN's live stream, but the analysis and the opinion and the letters to the editor. The entire conversation. You didn't need the New York Times last night. You didn't need Huffington Post either. And, because Blitzer and his counterparts—including, by some bizarre twist of fate, Geraldo Rivera, who played anchor for Fox News for quite some time—said little of consequence anyway, you didn't even need the cable news networks. What you needed was Twitter and, for the video of Obama's speech, WhiteHouse.gov.
The day after, the need for explanation, for context, extends beyond 140 characters–but Twitter remains the fastest route there, especially if you need to jump a paywall. Opinions and emotions will be stated and debated there, and the next big development will, in all likelihood, break there as well.
Last month, the Pulitzer Prize committee chose not to give an award for breaking news. I suggested that day—and still believe—that they should give it to Twitter. But perhaps the new paper of record doesn't need something so antiquated.