Monday, May 9, 2011
Stop the Presses!
As a proud journalism geek, I have read Ben Bradlee's autobiography roughly 80,000 times, give or take a few dozen skimmings. It's probably to the point now where I can recite the chapter about the Watergate scandal by heart. The one part that gets me every time is his description of his reaction to the moment President Richard Nixon announced his resignation:
"When it finally happened, when the president said, 'Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow,' I remember folding my hands together between my knees and laying my forehead down on my desk for a very private 'Holy Moly.'"
It's the kind of moment in history that you hope you get to experience once in real time as a journalist, even peripherally.
May 1 was one such moment for me. And a week later, I'm still processing the emotions that went with it.
It was of course, the night the killing of Osama bin Laden was announced by President Barack Obama.
As most of you know, I work in the sports department at The Washington Post, and that night we were supposed to be the center of attention in the newsroom. The Capitals hockey team had a must-win playoff game down the street at Verizon Center against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Little did we know that a few hours later, we would be focused on another certain building down the street from us, the White House.
The game was close, and dramatic. The Capitals forced overtime with a last-minute goal and since I was the Night Sports Editor in charge, I started running through contingency plans with my editors should the game drag out, as playoff hockey games tend to do when they go overtime. As focused as we are now on our Web site and digital journalism, we still had a newspaper to put out and firm deadlines to meet.
Fortunately, the game was settled fairly quickly in the first overtime period (first to score wins) and it was over a little before 10 p.m.
That was when we first started hearing the rumors.
As if there was any doubt that we are in a social media age, I first read about bin Laden's possible death on Twitter. Someone had retweeted Keith Urbahn's tweet about it and the news was spreading quickly. I put all our TVs in the sports department on news channels instead of ESPN and you could see the rest of the newsroom mobilize into action.
Suddenly, that dramatic overtime hockey playoff game looked incredibly insignificant.
Because we deal with live games that are mostly played at night, the sports department editors and reporters I work with are great with deadlines. And this night was no different. We knew we had to be done quickly in order to let the rest of the paper deal with this incredible breaking news.
And then at 11:35 p.m. Eastern Time, President Obama uttered the words, "I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children."
I stood in front of a large TV near my desk, arms folded, trying very hard to remain stoic but failing miserably.
The emotions that ran through my mind in those few seconds were plentiful. I thought about my immediate family, of a wife I married 11 days before 9/11. Of two sons born in New York City less than four miles from Ground Zero. Of friends who served in Iraq and Afghanistan (all alive, thankfully). Of former New York Times colleagues who were far more deeply impacted by those awful events nearly 10 years ago and who maintained a brave face for friends and family through unspeakable tragedy.
Impromptu celebrations broke out at Ground Zero and in front of the White House that night. Being walking distance from the White House, I did eventually make my way out there with a couple co-workers to check it out, snapping a couple pictures with my cellphone. Even without those pictures, it would have been a surreal sight I would not have forgotten.
There was plenty of talk about how kosher it was to celebrate in the wake of a death, even if it was a terrorist who helped cause so much pain and destruction. At least for me, the joy/relief I felt that night came from the fact that I had long given up hope the U.S. would track down bin Laden. It seemed he was either dead of natural causes or he was just going to continue to elude the U.S. and its allies.
Also, having lived in New York and the D.C. area over the last nine years, it's hard not to notice how much those events had become part of our lives, even as just a reference point. Bin Laden's death was bound to have a larger emotional impact in this part of the country.
But in a strictly professional sense, it was exciting to be working at The Post that night, and I'm incredibly proud of my colleagues who were more directly involved. Journalism is always the first draft of history, and to process such a "Holy Moly" moment in such a short time was nothing short of amazing.
And perhaps for the first time in my career, I comprehended what Ben Bradlee was talking about in his memoir.