Last Friday, the Osama Bin Laden video surfaced via Reuters and it was all over cable news. Later in the day, word emerged that CNN had been frozen out from getting the video at the same time as FNC and MSNBC because CNN had ended its agreement with Reuters the week before. But that is only part of the story…
Earlier this week, I learned via an ICN blog comment that someone knew the web trawler in Europe who found the video and that they had tried to offer it to CNN via the network’s I-Report service before they contacted Reuters. They also tried to contact other news agencies. But the trawler never heard back from CNN. This fascinated me considering how fast CNN had turned around I-Report video and pictures on the Virginia Tech massacre and the Minneapolis bridge collapse. So, with the assistance of his acquaintance I made contact with him.
Our web trawler’s name is Michael and his work can be found on Twitter’s BreakingNewsOn. Although the time between when he first tried I-Report and when he first contacted Reuters by phone was about half an hour, he didn’t reach agreement with Reuters on the video for another two hours. So the window available for CNN to respond was approximately two and a half hours. However, it’s an open question in my mind whether, having already started negotiations with Reuters, Michael would have given CNN much of a chance to compete had it responded after negotiations with Reuters had commenced.
But this story is about more than just CNN’s I-Report getting a bit of a black eye by not responding to the offer. This story is about how difficult it can be for people to get in touch with news organizations from outside. Note the names of who else he tried to contact but couldn’t find an appropriate phone number. And all of this transpired before he reached Reuters by phone. CNN wasn’t the only U.S. news organization that could have had the opportunity to get the video instead of Reuters if their contact information and instructions were more prominently visible and more publicly known. ICN interviewed Michael via email Wednesday…
How did you try to contact CNN?
Immediately after getting the Bin Laden tape I started contacting several news agencies. And yes, this included CNN.
CNN’s I-Report wasn’t my favorite way to contact them in the first place, but since the CNN site does not provide a telephone number, I decided to fill out the so-called “Breaking News” form on I-Report. At the time, this form was promoted with a large, red, banner asking everyone to send in breaking news. In this mail I shortly told them that I obtained the new, original and complete 26-minutes video of Osama Bin Laden’s first speech in three years. I also asked them to contact me as soon as possible if they were interested but I never recieved any reply. Maybe CNN mistook my mail as a hoax, and if so, it was a painfull mistake.
How many other news organizations did you contact at the same time? I heard you tried to contact the AP and Reuters via email. Were there any others?
In total, I tried to contact several television stations in the United States, including CNN, Fox News and NBC News. Unfortunately, none of these were providing a telephone number to contact them regarding breaking news, or any news in fact. In the time I was working to reach US media, I had already mailed several Dutch news outlets, including RTL News, NOS News, Nu and Novum News. The last one quickly returned my mail and said they were very interested in this tape. I had also mailed the British Sky News channel, which is personally one of my favorite TV-news sources. However, I have never recieved a reply from them. And also at the Sky News website, no telephone number was provided on their website. Only a day later I found CNN’s number at another website.
No I didn’t, actually never heard or saw these!
How did this unfold?
At around 4.45 pm GMT I obtained the full tape, which was just shortly after the breaking news that US government officials had received the video as well. In the first 15 minutes, I had watched parts of the video and was checking media sources like CNN, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and others to see if anyone else had already released this tape. Following this I started contacting news outlets. The first reply I recieved was from Novum News at 5.29 GMT, which is a pretty large media outlet in the Netherlands. They were asking how I obtained the tape and if I was able to show a piece of it. It took them about 15 minutes to reply to my initial mail.
At around 5.30 GMT I first called Alertnet in London, this is the Reuters newswire. I told them I had just obtained bin Laden’s latest video message, the full unedited version. The woman on the other end replied that she hadn’t heard anything of the new tape since she “hadn’t followed the news” lately. Strange, she works at Alertnet, right? Anyway, she said she would forward the information, and my phone number, to the Reuters newsdesk in Amsterdam. She also heard a piece of my tape on the phone and a few minutes later I was called by someone else from Reuters in London. She asked me about the source and wanted more details of the tape. She said she was going to discuss it with her boss and call me back. Later, Reuters in Amsterdam called me.. we’ve spoken several times on the phone and exchanged emails. and I mailed him a part of the video. Note that this is the 71-second clip which was aired on TV-stations across the world. After people from Reuters looked at it, in Amsterdam, London and the Middle-East, they concluded that they thought this was the real thing. Finally, around 6.55 GMT, we reached a deal. And only minutes later at 7.02 GMT, Reuters broke over my videotape: “BIN LADEN SAYS U.S. VULNERABLE DESPITE POWER - VIDEO SEEN BY REUTERS”, the headline on their newswire.
TV-stations including Sky News, which I had mailed before, went to breaking news coverage over this latest development. Following this I received details on how to send the full tape, which was around 200MB, to Reuters. The actual 71-second clip was fed to clients about 10 minutes later and many TV-stations broke into coverage to bring the clip. Some even aired special reports. Reuters received the complete video around 8 pm GMT. I haven’t actually reached any other media outlets by telephone and the full video was never provided to Novum News.
Communications between me and Reuters were pretty good and they never revealed my identity, as we had agreed. During the first phone conversations I was asked several times if I was a part of the al-Qaeda network. And no, I have no connections with any terror group whatsoever. CNN later aired my clip while using Al Jazeera’s recorded coverage, since they just ended their contract with Reuters.
If CNN had emailed back before you closed the deal with Reuters would you have broken off with Reuters and dealt exclusively with CNN? Or delayed with Reuters as you negotiated with CNN?
At the time, I would have probably delayed the deal with Reuters to see what CNN offered. But in the end I’m pleased to have dealt with Reuters and not CNN. I think CNN’s reporting of this story was pretty bad.
ICN contacted CNN prior to the posting of this story. A CNN spokesperson made the following comment:
CNN obtained a complete version of the transcript of the bin Laden video, and was reporting extensively on the video’s content to our audiences. There was little, if any, benefit to being “first’ with video in this case. All the networks aired this within the same hour.
Steps have already been taken to improve our process; however, CNN would not have done a deal with this guy to obtain the video.