When the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Sunday night, every night editor’s dream—or nightmare—came true at The New York Times: the Times’s Eileen Murphy told Chris O’Shea at FishbowlNY that “the order was given to stop the presses.” Monday’s front page was scrapped, and a new front page with top-to-bottom bin Laden coverage was ready to go just about two hours later. The centerpiece of the Times’s extensive coverage was a detailed and nuanced obituary of bin Laden that the paper had on file, ready to go on the occasion of his death. The piece had two names on its byline: Michael T. Kaufman, who died in January 2010, and Kate Zernike. Assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Zernike to get the story behind the story. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
How long had the Times had this obituary on file? When did you and Michael Kaufman start working on it?
This goes back to November of 2001, when we thought Osama was going to be captured, and presumably killed, in a raid in the next couple of days. So as much as it was a project that waited around for ten years, it actually was written in some ways on a fairly tight deadline.
In November 2001, I was working for the investigations team—I had actually been an education reporter at the Times before 9/11, but after 9/11 happened, everyone sort of got sent to different areas—so I was working in investigations, and Steve Engelberg, the investigations editor, said that we needed a bin Laden obituary. At the time, there was actually a whole bin Laden budget—you know, the list of stories that they were anticipating running. It was a plan for a front page that probably looked a lot like what the front page looked like on Monday, in fact.
Among all of those stories was a bin Laden obituary. It turned out that the obituary editor at the time had actually asked one of his writers to write something up, but it hadn’t been very long. They came to me and very specifically said that they wanted something that would be what’s known as a “double truck” inside. So I took Michael Kaufman’s work—and it’s odd, many times at The New York Times you’ll write a story with someone who you’re not in the same office with, and I never met him, and then of course he died last year—but I took his work and incorporated it into a longer piece.
This was just before Thanksgiving, and I remember we were on a pretty tight deadline, and we didn’t know when this was going to happen. But it’s still hard writing such a long piece, and when I left for Thanksgiving with my family, it wasn’t quite done yet. I remember the phone ringing in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, and thinking like “Aaah! It’s happened!” because who else would call? Well, we had a guest visiting, and it ended up being her mother on the phone.
So we kept thinking it was going to happen, and I came back to work and finished it in the end of November. And, you know, you think it’s going to run, and then you think it’s going to be another couple of months, and then at some point, later in 2002, we sort of thought, “Okay, this may not run.” And then of course in 2003, it becomes more about the Iraq war, and there’s less talk about bin Laden. I sort of forgot about it, but every once in a while it would come up in a conversation with a colleague. I remember talking about it with an editor at one point, discussing whether it would still run at full length, and we sort of both agreed that, no, he was no longer this enormous figure, and so it would probably run one full page inside, but not the two full pages.