A Tight Deadline, 4,000 Words, Then Ten Years of Waiting

A Q&A with Kate Zernike, Osama bin Laden's obituarist for the NYT

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.

So this weekend, I was traveling to Indiana, and I came back Sunday night, and I was exchanging emails with my editor about something completely different, and at the end of this email exchange, he said, “Turn on your television. Osama bin Laden is dead.” And I wrote back, “You know I wrote the obituary years ago…” and he wrote back, “No, but I’ll let them know.” By the time he wrote to them, they were already pulling it up. I gather that the weekend editor had said, “My God, do we have an obituary?”—and I think everyone was very surprised to find that we did. And so it went up fairly quickly. Tim Weiner, who’s my colleague in the obituaries department, topped off the story, and when it came down to it, I didn’t get any more calls on Sunday; it just appeared in the paper.

In many ways, it was strange for me, because I was reading it as a regular reader. I did wonder, “Does this stand up to the test of time?” I remember in particular the last paragraph, when you’re writing such a long piece, you always think, “How can I wrap this up?” And I remember writing the bit about how, what bin Laden really wanted was to become a martyr to his cause, and that if the United States ever killed him, that this would cause a great uprising in the Arab world against the United States. So when I read that, and it was interesting, I immediately was back in the moment when I actually had written that, ten years ago, and thought, “Yes, this did stand the test of time,” because this was still the question, I think, when we killed him. You see it now in the debate over whether to release his photo—the question of, Does he become even larger in death than he was in life?

So you didn’t update or tweak the obituary at all in the past ten years?

I don’t know; the obituaries department may have done some of that, but I did not.

Was there any editing that went on on Sunday?

Well, the lede was largely my lede, because I remember writing it. But obviously the circumstances of where he was killed, the first couple of paragraphs about how it had happened, and that the president had gone on television late at night to say it—there was obviously that kind of updating.

But there wasn’t any last-minute addition of historical information, biographical information about bin Laden’s life that has come out in the past ten years?

I couldn’t see it, but I don’t know. There was nothing that I can remember.

What was it like to see something on the front page that you had written ten years earlier? Whenever I see something I’ve written even a few months ago, I hate it, because I always see things I could have done differently….

Well, right, in the past ten years there have been so many historical accounts to come out. I have on my desk right now the Michael Scheuer book, Osama Bin Laden, so I would have loved to have included some of that. But I think, this is perhaps lame, but I think we all got used to thinking that this wasn’t going to be an issue, and if it were, we would have time. And of course, we should know that, in today’s news cycle in particular, you don’t have the luxury of time anymore. Especially if it happens at 11:30 on a Sunday evening.

Yeah, it’s amazing to realize how online news has changed from 2001 to today.


Bin Laden is not just any celebrity. How was the process of researching and writing this different than another kind of obituary—what were the challenges there that may not have been involved in writing an obituary of, say, Elizabeth Taylor?

Well, it’s common practice when we do obituaries of politicians or celebrities to call them up and ask for final interviews. Obviously that wasn’t going to be an issue here. We had to rely on past interviews, particularly the interview that John Miller of ABC News had done of Osama, I think that was the first one. There was one book, I believe Peter Bergen’s book was out at the time, and I remember consulting that a lot. That was one challenge—there wasn’t a lot of scholarship out there at the time. But keep in mind we had also done a three-part series on Al Qaeda earlier that year, we had written about this in the paper in 2001, so we did have some of that knowledge and background.

But some other things, for instance, we don’t know when bin Laden was born—even the scholarship over the last ten years doesn’t agree on when he was born—most people seem to agree that it was March 1957, but Steve Coll puts it at 1958. And we don’t know when his father was born. There’s also a lot of debate over how religious bin Laden’s father really was, how well bin Laden knew his father, how much of an influence he was. With all of those things, you can’t go to someone and say, “What was the most influential element in your childhood?” You can’t ask any of those questions. So we were relying a lot on interviews he had given, but also on interviews with CIA agents who had investigated him or profiled him. You never like to use secondary sources, but that’s what we had to rely on.

I did a review of obituaries that I saw on Sunday night and Monday for CJR, but I noticed that there weren’t actually that many out there. A lot of articles that came out about bin Laden’s death included some biographical information, but they weren’t slated as “obituaries” per se. What’s your opinion on that?

Right, well, this is one of the questions that I had in the intervening years—the question of whether this person merited this huge obituary anymore, or whether this would all be sort of subsumed into a larger story about his death, but that we wouldn’t have a full-blown obituary. In 2001 when this was first written, it was probably unthinkable that we wouldn’t have something really big about who he was, because at the time, people didn’t really know a lot about him. So some of this may have to do with the fact that this came late on a Sunday with very little notice—we didn’t know it was coming, so it was a great luxury that we had this, and we probably weren’t going to say, “We’re not going to run this.” It helped us to create a front page that was completely bin Laden.

I can’t speak for other papers, but there’s probably an element of thinking, “Well, we’re not going to get him, so this isn’t a pressing issue.” There may also be a certain amount of, as you say, we give obituaries to people like Elizabeth Taylor and Gerald Ford—is this someone that we really want to know more about? But I think a lot of people read obituaries to learn something about life, about how the world works, about what individual stories tell us about some universal idea. So in that way, I think it’s absolutely right decision to have an obituary for bin Laden.

I guess I can also imagine some outlets saying, Well, maybe people might want to know more about bin Laden, but we also don’t want to “honor” him with an obituary. Although most of the obituaries I have seen have handled it very well—it has to be a very subtle thing.

Right, it’s not “He was a great father to his children….”

Exactly. But it’s a biography, and he’s an important part of history.

One other interesting footnote is, for the Sunday Times I had written this Week in Review piece about conspiracy theories, so I woke up Monday morning and I was getting all these reader emails, and that’s how I knew that the obituary had run. But then I started getting all these emails saying things like, “He’s not really dead, we don’t have photographs, the DNA evidence isn’t real,” and I thought, “God, I just finished writing about this!” It was kind of unclear to me, were these people conspiracy theorists who had read the conspiracy theory story? Or were they conspiracy theorists who had read the bin Laden obituary?

When you were able to sort through all of your emails, what kinds of responses to the obituary did you mostly get, from the industry and from your readers?

You know, I have not actually had anyone say anything about the issue we were just discussing, the question of whether we should “honor” someone like this. I have not had a single reader write to me and say, “Why did you waste all this time on him?” My friends who are readers have sort of impressed upon me the historic element of this, more than maybe I realized myself. And I’ve gotten a lot of reader feedback saying that it was great to have this historical background and just sort of understand again—because, again, we’ve stopped talking about bin Laden—so I think it was really important for people to be reminded of just why he came to loom so large over our country.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , ,