At CNN, Scrambling To Prepare For An Unknown Story


When CNN got word the evening of May 1 that President Obama was going to make a statement, it immediately fired up its Washington-based operations without knowing what the story was. In a May 2 interview, Sam Feist, CNN vice president of Washington programming, who was the executive producer of Sunday's coverage, spoke about tracking down CNN talent at a hockey game, how they prepared for several possible stories, and why they sat on the Bin Laden news for 30 minutes before reporting it. An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Walk me through the timeline of events at CNN last night.

We learned from the White House at 9:40 that the president was going to make a 10-minute statement. We had no other information; we had absolutely no idea what the content of the statement was going to be. But let's be honest, the president doesn't give a 10-minute statement unexpectedly on a Sunday night unless it's important. We immediately started to fire up all of our operations in Washington and elsewhere to prepare for whatever it was, we didn't know if it was domestic or international at that time. I called Wolf Blitzer, who was at home in Maryland watching the Washington Capitals game. And I said, "Get in. Now." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I don't know, but it's important." So he grabbed a jacket and a tie and he raced downtown to CNN Washington bureau. At the same time, our chief national correspondent John King was at the hockey game with his daughter, and he raced to the Washington bureau. And our chief White House correspondent Ed Henry was at the hockey game and he raced to the White House. All not knowing what this was, we didn't know what the content of the statement was; we had no idea what the news was. Initially, as we started to run through ideas, it occurred to us that if it was international, the most likely candidates were that something had happened with Moammar Gadhafi or Osama bin Laden. But it could also be a major domestic story; we had no idea. By 10:00 we knew it was big, we just didn't know what, and by then we did know and began to report that it was national security-related around 10:00-10:10. We began to learn that it was national-security related which excluded all domestic stories but we didn't know specifically what it was. Even as early as 9:45, we began to prepare for the possibility that something had happened to either Gadhafi or Bin Laden, so we pulled video of both of them, and maps of Libya and maps of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to prepare for whatever the news was even though we didn't know what the news was, we were gearing up for something big and that was our educated guesses. We began to get from various government sources just after 10:00 that it might be Bin Laden. This is a story that's so big, that our policy is better to be right than to be first. CNN is seen in every country. It's seen by friends and enemies of the United States. In a story as big as Bin Laden, it is essential that we be absolutely certain before we report it. Even though we had more than a hunch by 10:15 that it was Bin Laden, we weren't prepared to report it as fact until we knew more, so we continued to check our sources. Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, Ed Henry, John King all had information that were pointing us in the direction of Bin Laden. Ultimately John King got a third confirming U.S. government official that gave us sufficient confidence that this absolutely was Bin Laden, and we then went on and reported it at that time [approximately 10:45]. Those three sources confirmed what Wolf, Ed Henry and Gloria Borger had, so at that point we made a decision that we had enough information to go with the story and report it.

What did you tell your talent Sunday night and Monday about how much of a celebratory tone is OK? What are your thoughts on that?

It's not for CNN's talent to be celebrating, however it was clear in their tone that it was an historic moment. You could feel the enormity of it. These are all reporters who covered 9/11. I'm not sure that the word ‘celebratory' is the right word, I think the word ‘historic' and ‘momentous' might be more appropriate. You could feel the emotion on our air and in their voices that this was a historic moment and a really important moment. We were the first network to show the spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House that literally were organic, they happened out of the blue soon after the news that Bin Laden was killed, the cameras on the White House lawn were the first to show them and it was really a remarkable moment. Our cameras were trained on this crowd that was growing and growing and growing. And then out of the blue, live on CNN we heard the crowd was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." So our reporters for a minute stopped talking and just listened. It was a remarkable moment, to see that crowd on their own, they didn't know they were on CNN, they were in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were clearly celebrating a historic moment for their country. So we conveyed that through the crowds, through what they were doing throughout the night, the spontaneous crowds that formed in Washington and also in New York at Ground Zero and at Times Square. And that was something that we went back to throughout the night, once we'd reported to news, to see the reaction from Americans particularly in Washington and New York that were so directly affected by 9/11 was remarkable. If you watched CNN last night you saw that emotion and you felt it, you felt it in the weight of the coverage from our anchors, but you also saw it from the celebrations that we were covering.

Do you think the international coverage of this story has been any different in tone?

Our coverage, CNN simulcast CNN and CNN International all night long. Wolf Blitzer anchored our coverage, and that was on all the networks at the same time. It was in many ways a joint production. All of our international resources were leveraged for our coverage, which was seen around the world. Nic Robertson, who was in Afghanistan on 9/11, was a part of our coverage. We went to Kabul to speak with our reporter on the ground, our terrorism analyst, one of the few people in the world who's interviewed Osama bin Laden, Peter Bergen. We were simulcasting the same CNN broadcast around the world. And then in the middle of the night CNN International anchors picked up our coverage and that was broadcast on CNN domestically, so it really was the same broadcast. And that continues today. Once again we're leveraging our international and domestic resources to work together on this story.