Why The Reaction to Bin Laden's Death Proves We're Screwed
On the first day of this month, we learned that the disaster movie that started back in 2001 had a Hollywood ending. The good guys killed the main bad guy after a raid that preliminary reports indicated was exactly like the time you sniped that dude in Call of Duty.
As college campuses around America celebrated like their basketball teams had all made it to the Final Four, reporters attempted to give the event some historical context. The ambitious ones called it our generation's V Day (for our younger readers, this is when our grandparents won World War II, and celebrated by having so much unprotected sex it created a sonic event called the Baby Boom), but everyone seemed to agree that we would all be telling our grandkids where we were when we heard the news.
"I remember where I was when CNN told me I'd be telling you this" doesn't sound like me, but most scientists agree it's probably too soon to know where flashbulb memories fall on the spectrum of body processes that can happen while Wolf Blitzer comments on the fact that they're happening.
One thing that seems clear is that it was the biggest news story to break since the Internet has been operating at full horsepower, and everything about how we get our information has changed. The Internet existed back in 2001, but the unprecedented surge in traffic on the morning of the terror attacks crashed pretty much every major news site. Most of us spent those first few days watching TV and calling or being called by our loved ones, depending on who was geographically closer to Washington or New York City.
"I know they haven't attacked Minneapolis yet but it would make me feel better if you let me mail you this handgun."
It's only 10 years later, but the way information travels has changed in some staggeringly weird ways. If we do end up telling our grandkids how we found out Bin Laden was dead, we should probably be prepared to be laughed at.
From Now On, Celebrities Break The News
The most important source of news right now and for the foreseeable future is not CNN or the New York Times. It is celebrities. And there's nothing we can do about it.
If for some unfathomable reason, you are one of the 500,000 people who follows Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on Twitter, you know that he uses the phrase "Bring It" with a frequency that borders on pathological. You also knew something was up before anyone else on May 1. At 10:24 p.m., over an hour before the President addressed the nation, The Rock announced that he'd "just got word that will shock the world." Whether he was playing it close to the vest, or just didn't know how to spell Osama Bin Laden, the fact remains that The Rock could have broken the most important news story since 9/11 if he'd wanted to. How is this possible? Where were the journalists? What ever happened to Stone Cold Steve Austin?
You know what? Don't even bother. You blew it.
As ridiculous as this might seem in a cosmic sense, it's actually inevitable. Legitimate news organizations need to check and cross check sources before they report something. The Rock's fact checking process involves shouting, "Are you serious, bro?!" into his phone and being proud of his country. That's probably fine, because nobody has lied to The Rock since he started growing muscles behind his ears. But he won't be the last celebrity to break important news. The Rock probably heard it from a TV producer who wanted to be his friend, and TV producers who want to impress celebrities are LA's No. 1 export.
The Rock only knows how to express skepticism using cartoon emotions.
To see why this matters, you only need to look at a list of the 10 most followed twitter feeds: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, some guy named Barack Obama, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Ashton Kutcher, Ellen DeGeneres, Taylor Swift and Shakira. That's 66,563,189 people getting real-time updates from celebrities and 7,800,893 for the President. It's hard to blame those people (except the ones that follow Kim Kardashian). Obama's job is to be careful, and Twitter is like a biker orgy: Unless it's sloppy and occasionally violent, what are we even doing here?
Hold the fucking phones you guys. The President thinks the economy is affecting businesses.
If fans of Katy Perry follow her on twitter, she might comment on the dragon you drew! Justin Bieber might flirt with you! Lady Gaga is an alien!
Following entertaining people and unintentionally hilarious celebrities is the most logical use of Twitter 99.999 percent of the time. It's just that the other .001 percent, Twitter happens to be the most powerful tool for spreading important information that mankind has seen up to this point. And the Bin Laden story proved that when shit goes down, we will use it for that purpose. And we will still be following the ridiculous celebrities we were following when shit wasn't going down.
America's No. 1 source for news: Lady Gaga.
When JFK was killed, Walter Cronkite broke into an episode of As the World Turns to tell the nation. Nobody breaks into your Twitter feed to tell you that CNN's Breaking News feed is going to be reporting actual breaking news for the next three days.
Well, almost three days.
If you are a fan of the Jersey Shore, and were on Twitter that Sunday night, you might have learned about the Internet's first huge news story from Pauly D ...
1.2 million followers.
Although his caste-mate Vinny might have put it more eloquently (honestly I can't tell):
1.1 million followers.
If you read the first half of Vinny's tweet in a sad enough voice, it almost seems like he understands how deeply upsetting it is that you're sharing this meaningful memory with him. The second half seems to imply that he's going to travel to your home when you have children and read Twitter to them, so he might just be bad at writing.
You didn't even need to be on Twitter to get some celebrity journalism upside your head. Mike Tyson took it upon himself to break the news to anyone who bought the Punch-Out iPhone app with the following push notification.
Stole Nintendo's slogan for the next Super Smash Bros., too.
We Freebase Information, the Media Learns to Stretch an Eighth
If you've memorized most of Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt as I have, you're familiar with the concept of "cutting." It's what a drug dealer does when there's more demand on the streets than they have drugs. For instance, cocaine dealers will mix, or cut, their product with Sweet N Low, baking soda or some other cheap and relatively harmless substance. It's dishonest, but it works because drug addicts tend not to be the most discerning customers. It's also exactly what the mainstream media did with the news of Bin Laden's death.
Everyone was working with the same handful of solidly sourced facts -- "Bin Laden is dead," "shot in the head," "by Navy Seals" and "in Pakistan" -- which you'll notice fit together nicely into a sentence that can be read aloud in under four seconds. The streets, however, were demanding eight hours of non-stop coverage. And so the media, both online and off, just cut those facts with enough speculation, debate and general bullshit to make it seem like there was more there than met the eye. And we, as a nation, were tweaking hard enough to not notice.
For instance, if you tuned into CNN immediately following the president's address, you saw one of the thousands of on-air personalities buzzing around CNN's Situation Room read the following tweet on national television ...
Shockingly, former welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya's reporting wasn't entirely accurate. Hitler died on April 30th and everyone just found out a day later. You could find this information by just glancing at Hitler's Wikipedia page. CNN decided to read it on national TV instead because, hey, if Oscar De La Hoya doesn't put his tweets through a rigorous fact checking process, that's on him.
All meticulously fact checked.
It was at least partially our fault. We were desperate for information, and we didn't care which retired boxer it came from. As long as we got that little buzz that comes with learning something that seemed important.
The ingredients each dealer chose to cut their product with were as revealing as they were predictable. Oscar De La Hoya's tweet seemed to fit in with CNN's general desire to put the story in some larger historical context. Fox News made the implicit claim that the liberal elite media was misspelling Osama Bin Laden's name ...
Of course, NBC doesn't want you to know it's spelled with a U ... for some reason.
... but wait. Was that President Bush addressing the media while looking all commander and chiefly in the third lead story? Was that President Obama next to him pooping his pants on national TV?
What was Bush doing back in the spotlight? Had he secretly masterminded the operation from behind the scenes? The headline under his picture wasn't saying that, if you paid close attention to the punctuation. If, however, you miss a colon it says "Bush Killing Bin Laden 'A Victory for America,' " which seems to suggest that Bush declared a victory for America while he was killing Osama Bin Laden, presumably with his bare goddamned hands.
Pics or It Didn't Happen!
In the aftermath, details of the harrowing raid emerged, allowing the media to focus on things like American helicopters racing for the border as Pakistani fighter jets closed in. Instead, the media decided to open the floor to people claiming that it was all a giant conspiracy if they didn't get to see pictures of Bin Laden's dead body. If you're from the Internet, you might recognize this gambit as "pics or it didn't happen," the rallying cry of lonely men who want to see your boobs.
You might have heard the edge-of-your-seat story of the helicopter crash that almost doomed the mission, but you're way more likely to have heard people debating whether the Obama Administration should release pictures of Bin Laden's dead body. On the con side, they were gruesome and could be used to rally violent reaction, and what are we, goddamn barbarians? On the pro side, White House counter-terror adviser John Brennan explained, "We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden." Which brings us to the important question, what the fucking what?
How did the burden of proof switch from the guys saying "Nuh-uh" to the guys with the DNA evidence? Shouldn't Obama's word, the eye witnesses and the complete lack of a coherent plausible alternative trump the word of the guys calling everyone "fat cats" and reeking of urine?
"Great use of the hand Mrs. Clinton. Mr. President, give me a little more intensity. We need the suckers out in the sticks to really eat this up. Also, don't you have anything better to do?"
Take a moment to imagine what that hoax would entail. Think of all the moving pieces Obama would need to have doing his bidding: everyone in the room in the above photograph, the rest of his cabinet, the Pakistani government, the guy who live tweeted the raid as it was taking place and Al Qaeda -- who, by the way, have totally acknowledged that Bin laden is dead. By my count, that theory requires the president to have at least five different superpowers, and twice as many balls. And the media has covered it with a straight face. Nobody is suggesting the theory is true. They're just using it to cut the story of Bin Laden's death. Milk a few more days of traffic and ratings out of it.
The problem is that people seemed to have taken the "pics or it didn't happen" thing to heart. Obama decided not to release the photographs, and in the days since, it's been almost as if the story didn't happen. Everyone expected Obama's approval ratings to soar, but it barely moved, and has since returned to where it was on April 30. Another poll showed that nearly one in five Americans believe Bin Laden is still alive.
The L.A. Times used those poll results to revive the argument that Obama should release the photographs to prove the conspiracy theorists wrong. As though the people who have stood by their conspiracy theory in the face of DNA evidence would look at a picture, and say, "Well, looks like we had it all wrong, Mr. President. Apologies all around." The L.A. Times doesn't seem to realize that "pics or it didn't happen" is only meant to tee your sanity up for the death blow when you finally show them photographic evidence, and they yell "Photoshopped!" and you realize nothing matters and your world might be an elaborate prank.
The president at the precise moment he started to wonder if everyone was just fucking with him.
Of course, whether or not the nation believes a dead person is dead doesn't really matter. We've made it this far with a fifth of America thinking Elvis is still kicking around out there. But if something really important does come down the pike, it's a little unsettling to think of how we'll handle the news. If the Kennedy assassination took place today, the world would have found out when one of the actresses from As The World Turns tweeted "OMG, show's canceled, JFK dead :(," while Cronkite was still making his way to the news desk, trying to decide if he should go to the conspiracy theory that LBJ killed Kennedy right away, or just use it to fill out the second hour.
Jack is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cracked.com, and not a fictional character created by Daniel O'Brien. He promises not to tell you anything important if you follow him on Twitter.
For more on how the news media is failing us, check out 6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bullshit As Fact and 5 Things The Media Loves Pretending Are News.