Whether a TikTok trend about Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” went viral is unclear, but what is clear is that cable news devoted significant coverage to its supposed virality in the following days. That coverage was more than many of Trump’s recent extreme statements received on the same networks, raising the question: What exactly do newsrooms consider newsworthy, and why?
An inflection point in mainstream coverage was seemingly a November 15 post on X (formerly Twitter) from Yashar Ali, who claimed, “Over the past 24 hours, thousands of TikToks (at least) have been posted where people share how they just read Bin Laden’s infamous ‘Letter to America,’ in which he explained why he attacked the United States.” According to The Washington Post, “Videos citing the document had been viewed far less than many TikTok posts. Then a journalist made a compilation and posted it to X, causing attention to the manifesto to explode.”
That attention wasn’t limited to social media. Media Matters found that in less than two days after Ali’s X post, cable news covered the story for over 2 hours. All of this is despite the fact that the actual virality of the post has been called into question.
Fox News covered it the most, devoting 1 hour and 20 minutes to the trend, using it to broadly claim that “liberals sympathize with bin Laden” and to argue that young people have been “brainwashed to hate America.” The story also got plenty of attention on CNN and MSNBC, which devoted multiple segments to it for a total of 34 and 17 minutes, respectively.
In response to media coverage of the phenomenon, Slate had a piece titled “No, Defenses of Osama bin Laden Didn’t ‘Go Viral’ on TikTok. The backlash is what went viral.” The article concludes that “what we need to keep in mind is proportionality. A small group of nobodies on TikTok saying dumb shit is not a viral trend that necessitates mass hysteria in response. This incident is only news because, well, it became news.”
To Slate’s point: What made this story newsworthy, and why was it deserving of more coverage than comments by former president and leading Republican 2024 candidate Donald Trump? A previous study by Media Matters found scant coverage was given to many of Trump’s recent extremist comments and rhetoric on the same networks that devoted more coverage to the TikTok story.
While CNN devoted 34 minutes to the TikTok story in the day and a half after it broke into the news cycle, the network only devoted 10 minutes in a two-week period to Trump’s claim that migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” 3 minutes to Trump’s claim that liberal Jewish people are “voting to destroy America,” and 3 minutes to Trump’s vow to implement “strong ideological screening” for migrants, saying he’d turn away anyone who doesn’t like “our religion.” So, CNN covered the TikTok story more in a day and a half than it covered Trump’s three comments combined in two weeks.
Similarly, MSNBC devoted more time to the TikTok story in a day and a half than the network did to any of the individual comments made by Trump in a two-week period. The network spent 17 minutes on the TikTok coverage, and just 12 minutes on Trump’s “poisoning the blood” comments, 9 minutes on Trump’s attacks against liberal Jewish people, and 3 minutes on Trump’s “ideological screening” comments.
The discrepancy is the most apparent however on Fox News. Fox spent a whopping 80 minutes covering the TikTok story, while those three Trump comments received less than 1 minute of combined coverage on the network.
Many would argue that coverage of the extreme and alarming statements by a major party’s front-runner who could very well once again be president of the United States is deserving of more attention than what some young people are (indefensibly) doing on social media. Apparently however, the people making editorial decisions at cable news networks disagree. The question is why?
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Osama,” “Bin Laden,” “Yashar,” or “Ali” within close proximity if any of the terms “letter,” “viral,” “essay,” “manifesto,” “TikTok,” “Twitter,” or “X” from November 13, 2023, when a TikTok user first posted Osama bin Laden's post-9/11 “Letter to America” that later picked up steam on the platform, through noon ET on November 17, 2023.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when social media posts about Osama bin Laden's post-9/11 “Letter to America” going viral were the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of posts about the letter. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the posts about the letter with one another.
We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment one another topic mentioned posts about the letter without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about posts about the letter scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We rounded all times to the minute.