The news Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces may have been unexpected, but it was a scenario ABC News staffers had rehearsed for at least a dozen times over the years in mock breaking news drills. In an interview with B&C staff writer Andrea Morabito on Monday, Marc Burstein, ABC News' executive producer of special events, detailed how his team prepared in advance, how they confirmed the story, and why ABC News President Ben Sherwood made the call to continue coverage anchored by George Stephanopoulos on the west coast after the other networks signed off. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Walk me through your timeline of events last week.
About 10:00 we got word that the President has something to say, we have no idea what it's going to be, in about a half an hour. The very fact that he was going to come out on a Sunday night and make a statement, the first thought that went through my mind was that was perhaps he was coming out to announce that Gadhafi hadbeen killed or had left Libya.
But then I thought for about another five seconds, and I had also been sleeping at 10:00 because I had just finished the royal wedding coverage, and thought for a few seconds and said nah, he wouldn't come out on a Sunday night to announce Gadhafi, that's something that could certainly wait until the morning. And I literally did think to myself, I wonder if it's about bin Laden.
We routinely do drills at ABC News for major events that we think someday might happen - a capture or killing of bin Laden is something we have drilled for many, many years, over the years we've drilled many times. Just knowing that the President was coming out I jumped in the car, we conferenced in a few critical people here and discussed. We don't lightly preempt primetime programming in sweeps, so you also obviously factor that in, if the President is coming out in primetime, it's obviously going to be important.
Our reporters started learning, started getting guidance on the record and off the record that this is big and you should have an anchor in the chair and other guidance that we were getting from various places, without anybody actually telling us what it was, all signs were that this was very big. I was driving in at the time, but while I was driving in we talked with the desk and we discussed making sure we had all the right people -- we had Brian Ross we had Martha Raddatz, Pierre Thomas, Nick Schifrin, Jake Tapper at the White House - everybody just dropped what they were doing and reported immediately to their posts and started working their beats.
Pretty soon we found that we had not one, not two, but three sources telling us that bin Laden had been killed. We went on the air with that. We were on the air about an hour before the President came out and announced it but at that point there was no doubt in anybody's mind.
We had Jake Tapper and Martha Raddatz getting detail every five minutes, filling in more and more detail for the audience. And we just stayed on the air; I think we were on for two and a half hours.
We place a high premium on enterprise reporting and investigative reporting, so people like Brian Ross and Pierre Thomas who have spent decades covering this, they have sources in the intelligence community, in the military community, who were able to give us the details and make sure we got it right. There's a lot of details in a story like this that you want to be sure you don't get wrong. We wanted to make sure we got all our facts right.
What do these breaking news drills entail?
Everything. We can make believe scenarios, any event that we can anticipate; that I can reasonably think would cause us to preempt regular programming, especially no matter what time of day. We rehearse terrorist incidents, we rehearse deaths of world leaders, and we drilled in this case Osama bin Laden being captured or killed. We've done this between 10 and 20 times over the years on every different day shift. We get all the people I just mentioned. We go through great pains to say this is only a drill. This allows us to rehearse the editorial. To some extent you have to make it up but we rehearse the graphics, the sounds tapes, the clips. We do this routinely. It's partly a systems check, but it's also making sure everybody is always on their toes.
Do you have a list of pre-approved events in which you are allowed to preempt regular programming?
I don't think there's such a thing as pre-approval. The bar to enter our programming is obviously different in the middle of the day than it is in Sunday night primetime in the middle of May sweeps. You want to be sure that what you're interrupting for is worth interrupting. We don't do that blithely.
Who made the call and why to stick with news coverage after midnight?
It's a real easy call, it was only 10:00 in the west and people were still watching primetime programming. Some of them were just coming home from a spring afternoon and maybe turning on the TV for the first time. Just because it was 11:00 or 12:00 on the east coast, we're very mindful of the audience out west and we just stayed on it until 1:00. Frankly, we could have kept going, but at that point, we had reported absolutely everything we knew, we were reporting people who were joining coverage every half hour.
It's a completely difference audience on a Sunday night, on a nice spring weekend, and we wanted to make sure that anybody who was tuning in knew exactly what they were seeing when they weren't getting the shows they expected to see.