Passing on Rumors  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Passing on Rumors   

Why it’s a bad idea to glorify the Rumsfeld aide who “broke” the news of bin Laden’s death on Twitter. Posted: Wed, May 4, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


"Hot Damn!" blared the New York Observer headline. "Behind the Young Rummy Aide Who Broke Bin Laden Bust"

The headline topped a profile of Keith Urbahn, the aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who became an instant celebrity following his Tweet Heard Round The World.

Unless you've been vacationing on Saturn, you know the deal: As the news media scrambled to figure out the subject of President Barack Obama's unusual late Sunday night announcement, Urbahn took to Twitter to announce: "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn." The tweet was retweeted by the New York Times' Brian Stelter and rapidly became the stuff of legend.

Urbahn's tweet appeared before the mainstream media reported bin Laden's death, giving rise to the runaway meme that Urbahn -- and Twitter -- had scooped the big players.

Which is just silly.

To "break" a story, you have to have nailed it down. You have to have the facts.

What did Urbahn have?

He had a phone call from someone he has described as "a connected network TV producer" who wanted to interview Rumsfeld to get his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden.

In other words, he had information that, while incendiary, may or may not have been true, as far as he knew. He had no reliable source. He had no confirmation. Nor had he tried to get any.

Urbahn wasn't practicing journalism. He was passing on a rumor. As he was quick to point out.

Yet this was described by TechCrunch as "the first credible sign of the imminent announcement of Bin Laden's death." The Daily Caller credited Urbahn with being "the first to break the news of bin Laden's death." Gushed the Canadian television network CTV: "It's the kind of news scoop that every journalist and news outlet dreams of reporting first. But it wasn't one of the 'big boys' who proclaimed the news of the death of Osama bin Laden; it was a 15-word tweet on Twitter." Wrote Matt Rosoff on Business Insider: "Twitter was faster, more accurate, and more entertaining than any other news source out there."

Fortunately for Urbahn, it turned out that Obama was poised to announce the death of Terrorist No. 1. But that's hardly cause to glorify him. As former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan was fond of saying when an unlikely performer made a good play, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.

There's no doubt it's a great story: a 27-year-old takes a break from watching a hockey game to tell the world about the death of Osama bin Laden. So what's the problem?

The problem is this: The celebration of Urbahn's timely tweet sends out precisely the wrong message. It seems to suggest that guessing is good enough, that verification is just so old school, that simply throwing it out there is perfectly fine. Coming so soon after NPR's humiliating report on the death of the very-much-alive Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is this really the road we want to be taking?

To his credit, Urbahn has played down any notion that he's the new Bob Woodward or Sy Hersh in town. Just after his initial tweet, he followed up with: "Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is." And then: "Ladies, gents, let's wait to see what the President says. Could be misinformation or pure rumor."

And he seems to see his role more clearly than those so eager to sing his praises. "I'm not a journalist," he told the Observer. "I was watching the news; they were very careful not to report things that were rumor or single-sourced, and that was the right thing to do."

Amen.

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