What The Bin Laden Coverage Tells Us

What The Bin Laden Coverage Tells Us

How we got the news, and how we responded.

On that terrible day 10 years ago when the Twin Towers fell, we New Yorkers got the news from bulletins on television, reports on all-news radio stations and from telephone calls from friends. In the days after the calamity, we took comfort in the pages of our newspapers, which chronicled the lives of the heroes, the survivors and the dead. For many of us, the newspaper became a kind of public square where we collectively grieved and came to terms with our new reality as Americans and as Jews.

The news on May 1 that Osama bin Laden had been taken out by U.S. Special Forces put a coda on the national trauma that began on Sept. 11, 2001. For some it was a time to celebrate and for others a time to reflect, but most everyone hoped that the world had become a safer place.

The way we learned of bin Laden’s death was dramatically different from how we first processed 9/11. Many of us got the bin Laden news from alerts on our cell phones or from messages on Facebook. If we heard about it from a friend, it was more likely by text message than by telephone call. And while some of us old-timers went to the television set to watch President Barack Obama give the first account of the dramatic assault on bin Laden’s lair, most young people simply flipped open their laptops.

It was the busiest night in Twitter’s history, with 4,000 tweets a second in the 12 hours following the president’s speech.

Needless to say, 10 years ago there was no Twitter and no Facebook and no smartphones. We largely relied then on newspapers for in-depth coverage, but today those newspapers — if they exist at all — are but a shadow of their former selves. They have lost readers, advertisers and are in economic distress.

The media landscape has shifted so dramatically in the last decade that we sometimes forget how much our daily media habits have changed. In this column, which will appear regularly in The Jewish Week, I hope to chronicle some of those changes and explore what they say about us as Americans and as Jews. I hope to look back to where we’ve been and to where we are going.

Much of the media buzz in the days after the president’s dramatic announcement was focused on the spectacle of people taking to the streets to cheer, pop open champagne bottles and sing patriotic songs. News anchors turned their cameras from what was going on in the White House to what was going outside its gates where students from nearby universities were amassing to celebrate. Soon the TV screen was filled with images of demonstrations of unfettered joy in Times Square, Ground Zero and on numerous college campuses.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was among the first to weigh in on the spectacle. Writing in the Jerusalem Post he found such gatherings unseemly. “Bin Laden’s death was not a cause for celebration, but rather a time for gratitude to God,” he wrote.

But that wasn’t strictly a Jewish view. Ayesha Mattu, a Pakistani-American blogger wrote a column for Religion Dispatches called “No Fireworks, Only Candles: Our Work as Americans and Muslims.”

Christianity Today, an Evangelical magazine, did an analysis of the tweets from the night after the Obama speech and found that the most cited biblical verse used in those messages was one that would seem to condemn such gatherings. It came from Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”

But then, the seventh most tweeted verse, also from Proverbs, seemed to support the street demonstrations: “When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (11:10).

I tend to agree with Boteach and Mattu. Dancing in the streets hardly seems appropriate, but I do see a silver lining in the actions of these young people.
Here, finally, was some news that got people off their couches and away from their video games, reality shows and movie marathons. This, after all, was the generation that grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center and a monster named bin Laden. Many of them believed that it was safer to be inside than to venture out.

But here, for one glorious night, they took to the streets, stood shoulder to shoulder and sang — without the aid of a karaoke machine — songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was an old-fashioned display of human emotion and joy. Unplugged, unrehearsed and unmediated.

Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This article inaugurates a new column about the media.

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