Gwen Ifill: Getting the Bin Laden Story

President Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden on Sunday; White House photo by Pete Souza

My flight from Seattle had just touched down at Reagan Washington National airport late Sunday night when I clicked on my BlackBerry. It immediately began buzzing with an alarming stream of emails and tweets.

An hour later, the president would announce that Osama bin Laden, the terror scourge, had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan — a revelation that contained the potential to change the course of foreign policy, the war on terror and the political trajectory of leadership around the world.

Stories like this are both exciting and terrifying to cover — especially when it took nearly an hour to determine what exactly the president would be announcing.

At the PBS NewsHour, we jumped into overdrive — online and on air — and never stopped. There was so much to explain, which is what we do best.

For my Washington Week panelists, who work for a wide range of print, broadcast and online outlets, Sunday night was memorable.

At the Washington bureau of The New York Times, where the next day’s stories are usually locked down by 11:30 p.m. ET at the latest, editors stopped the presses for only the third time in 43 years and remade the front page.

Four of our Washington Week regulars — Peter Baker, Helene Cooper, Mark Mazzetti and Jeff Zeleny — were pulled into the story from home, or at the bureau where they could hear crowds cheering at the White House two blocks away.

“Everyone understood what a historic moment it was,” said Baker, who has been on book-writing leave, but dropped everything to jump on the bin Laden story and ended up writing and rewriting all night long.

Zeleny, who was watching “The King’s Speech” on pay-per-view at home, jumped on his computer and dashed off a political news analysis piece in three big chunks (newspapers call them “takes”) and sent it in. He had no idea the story would be on page 1 until he checked online hours later.

Cooper was also at home watching the royal wedding on DVR. “I think the TV is still on pause,” she told me.

Another Times reporter, David Sanger, found himself in Brussels for a NATO story, switched topics and spent the night writing on a rented WiFi signal from an airport lounge.

Reporters are much like everyone on Sunday nights before the work week begins. Many were resting up after staying up late the night before following the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

Dan Balz of The Washington Post, who won the association’s big deadline writing award Saturday night, checked his email at 10:20 p.m. Sunday and saw a presidential announcement was coming. He switched on the TV. By 11:10 p.m., he was assigned to write an analysis piece. By 12:15 a.m., he’d sent in an 1,100-word story. (That’s why he won the deadline writing award.)

Tom Gjelten was on a late-night run to the drug store when his NPR editor called. “Thus began a long night with almost no sleep,” he said. “Morning Edition went on the air an hour early at 4 a.m., and I handled the first segment.”

All around the city and the country, reporters were jerked awake and onto the story. Martha Raddatz, who was sitting on a plane en route to Afghanistan, jumped off, worked her sources, and started phoning in live reports to ABC News instead.

James Kitfield of National Journal sat up in his Houston hotel room with a glass of brandy and crashed stories for the Web and for this week’s magazine cover story. John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News and Gloria Borger of CNN were both in bed reading (at their separate homes, if you were wondering) — he David Yaffe’s book about Bob Dylan; she Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” — when their evenings were interrupted.

Gloria emailed a source who replied, simply: “Get in to work.” And she did.

News people live in fear that they will miss the story. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times almost did. It took a phone call from his college-aged daughter to jolt him out of his Sunday night reverie. “Only then did I check my email,” he said. “And discover that all hell was breaking loose.”

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted from the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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