Midway through his speech announcing that US special forces had killed Osama Bin Laden, President Obama recalled the sense of unity that Americans had felt on 9/11, acknowleding, “I know it has, at times, frayed.” Nearly 10 years after the towers fell, the Pentagon burned and Flight 93 crashed, we are in many ways a more fractured society than we were on September 10, 2001. But for a few hours, at least, late on a Sunday night in 2011, TV news and social media made us feel whole as a country again.
I’ll leave the political impact of this to other writers on other sites. I cover TV, not politics, and I learned a long time ago that politics is a subject that almost no one can discuss rationally anymore, and certainly not on the Internet. (And it should go without saying that if the comments to this post start turning into attacks against one side of the aisle or the other, or individual posters, that stuff’s getting deleted post-haste.) But what struck me in tracking this story both on TV and online was how unified everything became.
We’ve become so stratified not only in politics, but in coverage of politics, that it’s frequently possible to turn on Fox News and MSNBC’s coverage of the same event and get two radically different, seemingly incompatible accounts of it. That wasn’t the case here. From the moment the story began to leak online, the tenor and content of nearly everyone’s TV coverage was all of a piece, hitting the same key points over and over: 1)A mixture of relief, pride and satisfaction at the death of this man who had caused so much harm and eluded us for so long, 2)An understandable sense of concern about how this news might be received in corners of the world not so kindly disposed to America, and 3)The usual hurry-up-and-wait silliness that you often get on TV news when all the reporters and anchors know a small piece of a story and are just filling time until the big revelation, which in this case was the president’s speech.
(A typical bit of pre-speech throat-clearing: CBS’ White House correspondent Chip Reid told anchor Russ Mitchell – covering the story in place of Katie Couric, who already has one foot out the door – that Obama, presumably knowing the announcement was coming, had only played 9 holes of golf today instead of his usual Sunday 18.)
It helped that this was an issue where everyone, on every network and in nearly every political affiliation, was on the same page: no one was shedding a tear for Osama. And it helped that the White House kept such a tight lid on the story until they were ready, and then let the word spread all at once onto Twitter and in emails and voicemails to the top reporters. The notion of an impromptu presidential press conference late in East Coast primetime on a Sunday night is without recent precedent, and the idea that it was about a national security issue briefly caused a panic on Twitter. Then, according to the New York Times’ Brian Stelter, Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff tweeted a rumor about Bin Laden being killed around 10:25, and within 20 minutes, most major news organizations had this information confirmed, even as Obama’s speech kept being pushed back. Everyone had the information at practically the same time, which meant there was only time for analysis, and reflection, both before and after the big speech.
There were personal reveries from certain media members. On CBS, Jere Van Dyk, who was held captive by the Taliban for 45 days, struggled to maintain his composure as he recalled how his captors had boasted, “You will never find Bin Laden.” On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera recalled the many soldiers he had met on assignment in Afghanistan, some of whom had later died in combat, and expressed satisfaction on their behalf for the “Old Testament” justice.
On ABC, George Stephanopoulos followed the speech by checking in with relatives of 9/11 victims, who were also fairly consistent in their reactions: surprise, relief and satisfaction (“I’m overjoyed that America pulled it together and got it done,” one relative told him), but also wariness about what might come next.
It didn’t matter where you turned on the dial: the reactions, the footage (including the celebratory throng outside the White House), the tone was all remarkably similar.
I suspect that sense of unity will last about as long as it did after 9/11 – maybe even less. But just as an act of mass murder orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden brought us all together on that terrible day, a calculated act by the US military against Bin Laden for at least one night created the illusion that we can still all be one nation.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org