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ESPN cautious with bin Laden news

ESPN did its journalistic duty late Sunday – slowly, carefully and with a minimum of emotional flourish informing viewers during the Mets-Phillies game that Osama bin Laden was dead.

Dan Shulman shared the news after the bottom of the eighth inning, with the scored tied at 1, after a text message analyst Bobby Valentine had shown him was confirmed by the network’s corporate sibling.

“ABC News is reporting that Osama bin Laden has been killed, and a presidential news conference is upcoming momentarily,’’ he said.

“We ask all of you to go to your ABC stations for further details on that situation.’’

That set the tone for ESPN, which repeatedly urged viewers to turn to ABC affiliates for updates as the news quickly filtered through the crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

It was not until Philadelphia fans began to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A’’ that the announcers began to break away from sober analysis of the game to embrace what was going on around them.

With one out in the top of the ninth, Valentine said, “We’ve got a chant of ‘U-S-A’ as the news goes through the crowd.’’

Then it was back to baseball until Shulman, a Canadian, again addressed the matter with two out and David Wright at bat.

“It’s an odd feeling in the ballpark right now, to be perfectly honest with you at home,’’ he said. “Some in the crowd chanting are ‘U-S-A, U-S-A,’ obviously aware of the news.’’

Later in the half-inning, Hershiser said, “It’s almost a where-were-you-when, Dan. I remember where I was, I know everybody does, when the towers were hit. Now we know where we were when he died.’’

(On WFAN, Howie Rose first informed listeners of the bin Laden reports as the crowd began its "U-S-A" chant, saying, "It's becoming an almost surreal evening" as the "globally huge story" began to break.)

It was evident Shulman was being extra cautious until President Obama confirmed the news, and there is not anything wrong with a low-key approach when important, complex news is developing.

"We weren't looking for opinions at that point. We just wanted to talk about what was going on," ESPN VP of event production Mike McQuade said. "We were reacting to the news in front of us. So we were cautious, but we weren't going to avoid the story, either."

The contrast was stark compared to a similar situation involving word of a stunning death that broke during a nationally televised sports event – albeit one that brought infinitely less happy news for most Americans.

In 1980, it fell to ABC’s “Monday Night Football’’ announcers to inform the nation John Lennon had been killed in Manhattan, something ABC learned before any other news outlet had.

After a spirited behind-the-scenes debate about whether to interrupt a close game with the news, Frank Gifford convinced Howard Cosell to do just that, and his dramatic, emotional announcement remains one of the enduring memories of that event.

It is doubtful anyone will remember what was said initially in the ESPN booth when bin Laden’s death is recalled in future decades, but the reaction of Phillies fans will be part of the night forever.

Hershiser said in the 10th that he got “goosebumps’’ hearing the “U-S-A’’ chant.

Valentine, who as manager of the Mets in 2001 played a prominent role in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, waited until the 11th inning to weigh in.

“Now is a time to feel some kind of satisfaction, but also a time to be diligent and to look around and make sure you know what’s going on around you,’’ he said, “because if we let our guard down at this time it could mean trouble, and we can’t let that happen again.’’

At the end of the telecast, the camera again focused on the booth, and the tone grew more emotional than it had been earlier.

Said Valentine: "I'll remember that I was here, and I'll remember that I was managing the New York Mets on 9/11 and I had the honor of managing a team that took the field on Sept. 21, the first baseball game in New York after those horrific attacks.

"That was when the healing began, when we began to get back to a recovery state. Maybe tonight has helped so many who have suffered all these 10 years to continue their road to recovery. And I hope so."

When reached Monday, Valentine explained why he stuck to baseball and did not weigh in with his thoughts on  bin Laden's death until the 11th inning. He said he was too emotional earlier to discuss the matter on the air. "When I heard it was confirmed I got choked up," he said. "[Producer] Tom Archer asked me how I was doing and I didn’t think I would be presentable." (Read more from Bobby Valentine here.)

Said Hershiser: "Hopefully the world is a better place now and a safer place. But we do need to be vigilant and be on the lookout for anything that's out there."

Shulman called it "a moment that nobody who was in this ballpark tonight will ever forget."

Valentine said producers and announcers performed well acting on the fly, trying to convey what was going on at the stadium in Philadelphia in a scene he called “amazing. It was a spontaneous, combustible situation.’’


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