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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

The Anthrax Enigma   

As they struggled to cover the bioterror scare, the news media had no precedents, no blueprints. Neither did their often-disagreeing sources. Did news outlets keep their audiences informed without unduly heightening the fear?


By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

As they struggled to cover the bioterror scare, the news media had no precedents, no blueprints. Neither did their often-disagreeing sources. Did news outlets keep their audiences informed without unduly heightening the fear?

When a second wave of horror rocked a shell-shocked and grieving nation in early October, the terrorists behind it appeared to be operating on the axiom: If you want to scare the wits out of America, scare journalists first.

In what could be considered a stroke of evil genius, superstar TV anchors and other newsroom personnel became targets of anthrax, a lethal germ weapon that health officials say never before has been unleashed on a civilian population. The media were in the thick of the story as messenger and as victim.

Overnight, the Fourth Estate faced the challenge of reporting an outbreak of bioterrorism on the home front. Journalists had no precedent, no strategy to deal with rapid-fire breaking news of infection by killer germs, no ready-made pool of experts.

Hoaxes, false alarms and conflicting information mushroomed as reporters scoured the nation in search of elusive facts and informed advice on who might be unleashing the lethal spores. In October, David Brown, a physician who writes for the Washington Post, offered a sobering assessment: "The perpetrators are in control of all the important variables." Editors agonized to reach the delicate balance of providing useful information the public needed to know in order to guard against anthrax infection without scare-mongering. Experts warned that, in these trying times, the media could create or help to control panic and fear by the content and tone of their reporting.

As the bioterrorism frenzy took hold, factual information was the first casualty. A myriad of contradictions and misinformation emanated from the White House and other official channels. Mixed messages clouded news conferences and government briefings. As the Bush administration urged Americans to go about their business, the FBI warned that there was evidence of impending new terrorist attacks.

The unanswered questions, disputes, lack of verifiable information and sheer mystery of it all created a perplexing dilemma for the news media. By mid-November, the only letters that had tested positive for anthrax spore contamination in the United States were those sent to journalists and government officials in Washington, D.C. The perpetrators scored a major victory as reports of bioterrorism dominated 24-hour news cycles.

The media were being held hostage by an unfolding drama over which they had no control.

Journalists are receiving mixed reviews on the question of how well they are handling the challenge. Opinions range from charges that the media had slipped into a "Conditization" of a story that needed to be handled sensitively to high praise for an evenhanded approach to an emotion-charged and terrifying series of events.

Some of the toughest criticism came from high-profile insiders like CBS' Dan Rather, who scolded the media, including CBS, for overreacting to the anthrax story at the expense of the war in Afghanistan and repercussions from the September 11 attacks. Rather told the Associated Press, "My own sense of it is that it's been overcovered, and I worry about that creating exactly what the people who spread this terrible stuff want, which is spreading fear that they hope will result in panic."

Political pundit Ariana Huffington cited breathless reporting, rampant rumors, baseless speculation and twitchy, nerve-racking crawls on TV screens for providing "enough toxic filler to feed the 24-hour news beast." Marvin Kitman of Newsday called the anthrax story "a bonanza for scareologists" in news departments.

Others, like Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, praised the overall coverage. "I think the press has been prudently cautious in reporting the [anthrax] story and therefore helped the country understand that there is no need to be panic-stricken about this," he says.

In particular, he praised the media for not pointing an immediate finger of blame at Osama bin Laden as the likely perpetrator and noted that what some might describe as the "incomplete nature of the journalism" reflects the fact that officials who are responsible for investigating anthrax don't know as much as they need to at this point.

Bob Meyers, president of the National Press Foundation, agrees. He finds day-to-day coverage "fairly impressive. This is an original, nonfiction novel playing out in America's news organizations. It's endlessly fascinating.... Journalists have done a good job of being responsive to breaking news, putting information into context and educating about risks."

As an example, Meyers cites graphics on television and in the print media that show the public how anthrax spores work their way into the lungs, multiply and begin destroying vital organs. "One of the great functions of journalism is to give people the information they need to understand daily events. So far, I've been pleased."

Mark Jurkowitz, the Boston Globe's media writer, praises news organizations for showing restraint when the first infection surfaced in Florida. "It was not the instinct of the media to hype the story from the onset. There was no sense of 'Oh, God, we've got anthrax, let's go wild here,' " he says.

Some media critics dispute this view, arguing that the press has taken a "Chicken Little" approach. Howard Fienberg, a research analyst for a Washington group that monitors how the media cover science, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The tone has been this shrill 'the sky is falling, we're doomed.' [Networks are] talking about ironing mail to take care of anthrax spores. The bizarre things they've come up with to fill air space is ridiculous."

Journalists themselves were critical of the doomsayers. Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times led an October 18 story with: "All spores, all the time: For days, the press has been infected with anthrax frenzy, spreading the ultimate cooties story with big headlines and purple prose, spooking the public and vexing officials who must cope with the newest national anxiety."

On a CNN Special Report, anchor Aaron Brown posed to journalists what he called the "three bears question" where anthrax is concerned too much, too little or just about right? That is the dilemma that faces gatekeepers throughout the country. "In the 21st century, mass hysteria and its sinister brother, conspiracy theory, can be as dangerous as spores, bacteria, and germs," Elaine Showalter, an expert on epidemics and the media, warned in a piece she wrote for London's Guardian.

But James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, says it's important to keep in mind that journalists, like everyone else, are learning as they pursue this unprecedented story. "The experts aren't very expert yet" when it comes to anthrax, he says.

"I think the press has done a very good job of calling attention to the dangers of anthrax and less of a good job of dispassionately and calmly putting them in context," Naughton says.

That doesn't surprise him because journalists traditionally get "all aflutter" about major news developments and gradually, as they learn more, place the information in perspective. "Journalists are slowly getting a grip on whether a possible case in a possible location means we need to get concerned or whether it is just another statistic," Naughton says.

America's descent into the world of "bugs," as insiders call germ arsenals, began on October 4. On that day, Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor for the Sun, a supermarket tabloid published in Boca Raton, lapsed into unconsciousness. Medical personnel at JFK Memorial Hospital in West Palm Beach were stumped by his rapidly deteriorating condition. The avid outdoorsman was the first reported to be infected with the rare bacterial disease anthrax and the first to die.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson made public the cause of Stevens' illness on the eve of his death on October 5. He labeled it an "isolated case" and insisted, "there is no terrorism."

Later in October, three taunting, anthrax-laced letters showed up in Washington, D.C., New York and New Jersey. Two postal workers died. This time Tom Ridge, director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security, acknowledged, "Our country has never experienced this type of terrorism."

Johanna Huden, an editorial page assistant at the New York Post, thought it might be an insect bite when she first noticed a red, itchy bump on her index finger. Then it began to swell and ooze. When she removed a Band-Aid, she was jolted by the sight of a "hideous black lesion" a telltale sign of cutaneous anthrax.

Huden, whose duties include opening letters to the editor, was the fourth New Yorker to be diagnosed with the disease.

The World Trade Center still was smoldering on October 15 when NBC's iconic anchor, Tom Brokaw, himself a target, signed off the nightly news by displaying a vial of pills and telling the world: "In Cipro we trust." A longtime assistant was battling the toxic germs delivered to his office in a letter. Cipro, the popular treatment for anthrax, became a household word as the public rushed to stock up. The 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer contracted the infection after his mother took him to a birthday party in the network's offices in late September. On October 16, the New York Times led with a story whose deck read: "Baby Falls Ill as Scare Widens Across the U.S."

At CBS, Dan Rather's assistant, described as a "beloved friend," also had tested positive for skin anthrax. During an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" on October 18, Rather talked about what it was like to be the subject of a breaking story.

"This is particularly awkward and uncomfortable, because it is so serious.... This young woman became a part of a target for an assassin. It doesn't get much more serious that that," Rather told King. The talk show host somberly reminded Rather: "You also know the target is you."

A defiant Rather said he would not be tested for anthrax or take antibiotics. "We're not going to run scared, and we're not going to work scared," the anchor proclaimed.

At the New York Times, reporter Judith Miller, an expert on bioterrorism, opened a powder-filled envelope with a St. Petersburg, Florida, postmark. "Had the [newspaper] planned for such an emergency, I would have been isolated from my colleagues and the potentially deadly letter. But like most organizations, we had not conducted drills for biological or chemical attack," Miller wrote in a first-person story on October 14. The powder tested negative for anthrax.

At the time, four media operations had been hit with positive spores, leaving one staff member dead, four infected and nine exposed to the anthrax infection.

A finely milled variety of the germ was delivered by mail to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. In a matter of days, two postal workers in the Washington, D.C., area were dead. Offices in the House and Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court and the State Department were shut down as workers in biohazard suits tested for germs. At the New York Times, the newsroom floor was evacuated and tests were conducted around Miller's desk by police officers, many in biosuits and gas masks. The scenario was replayed at other news operations as they became targets for would-be killers or copycat hoaxes. At AJR's deadline, 17 people had been infected with anthrax, four of them fatally.

To Kyle Olson, an authority on high-tech terrorism, the choice of victims made perfect sense. The dispensers of anthrax were using the media as a "force multiplier." At a conference on "Journalism in the Face of Terrorism" at Syracuse University, he said, "If you were a terrorist with only a small amount of anthrax, you want to send it to people who will get you on the evening news people at a news tabloid, a news anchor, a politician."

The attacks against a handful of media organizations sparked changes in newsrooms nationwide. Suddenly, rubber gloves and surgical masks became as common as laptops and tape recorders. At WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, an employee in a biohazard suit began to handle the mail. The St. Paul Pioneer Press ordered trailers to be stationed near the building for processing packages and letters.

ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN are preparing to provide biohazard suits and gas masks to staff who cover high-risk assignments. It is common now for suspicious mail to be thrown away or tossed into plastic bags for inspection by employees wearing protective gear.

In October, Jane Amari, editor and publisher of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, announced the newspaper would temporarily stop accepting "snail mail" letters to the editor or for the community calendar. Readers were told to make contact by fax, e-mail or hand delivery to the paper's offices. After converting a small lunchroom into a holding area for mail and taking other precautions, the Daily Star rescinded the ban.

Amari's initial decision drew fire from Richard Roeper, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, who called the move "stupid, cowardly and elitist." "Cowardly because a newsgathering organization should be the last entity to get down on bended knees in the face of terrorism," Roeper wrote.

At the New York Post, editor Annie Aquilina keeps candy and cookies on a shelf outside her office. At times, she sweeps through the newsroom passing out treats. In October, Aquilina made the rounds passing out rubber gloves and masks to reporters and editors afraid to open their mail.

A column by the Post's Rod Dreher titled "We're All War Journalists Now" explored the impact of the terrorist threat on newsrooms. "Hate mail is part of the job, but now that this stuff could be lethal, all journalists have to weigh whether it's worth risking one's life to write a particular column, or report a certain story. The answer has to be 'Hell, yes.' "

At Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs hammered the message home: "You didn't need to shoot the messengers; you just needed to scare them to death, because fear is bacterial as well," she wrote in a lead story. On the cover was the image of an opened envelope with the headline, "The Fear Factor."

From the onset of the anthrax scare, journalists have struggled to provide information the public needs without feeding panic with speculation, prediction and thinly-sourced information. Some, like the Press of Atlantic City, have taken a conservative approach. The newspaper explained to readers that reports of suspicious materials received in the mail would receive only brief mention unless health and law-enforcement officials deem them a threat to public safety. It was, says Editor Paul Merkoski, an effort "to be sane about this process."

Brian Malone, editor of Trenton, New Jersey's Times, was thrust into covering the story at a new ground zero. The newsroom veteran was at home on Saturday, October 13, when he was jolted by the words that crawled across the television screen. The anthrax-laced letters sent to Brokaw were stamped with a Trenton postmark. Suddenly, it was a breaking hometown story.

The Times' staff still was reeling from covering the deaths of 64 World Trade Center victims who lived in its circulation area. Now it was time for the 80,000-circulation daily to deal with phase two of the "Attack Against America." Five reporters and an editor worked round-the-clock as Mercer County became a magnet for the international media, law enforcement and public health officials.

"Life changed dramatically for all of us," Malone says. "We were in a unique situation. We had to be careful not to be alarmist. At the same time, this was war. There never has been a more important story."

He credits his managing editor, Peter Callas, with being "a bulldog" when it comes to staying on top of the story. Every day, Callas scours Web sites for new angles, stays on top of the competition and deploys the troops as news breaks. Says Malone: "We're looking for dull for at least one day. Is that asking too much?"

Across the country, at Portland's Oregonian, news managers relied on three watchwords to guide post-September 11 coverage: comprehensive, authoritative and useful. But the paper found it difficult to apply them to anthrax coverage. "The facts of this story are so damn sensational by themselves. The last thing you want to do is ratchet it up," says Editor Sandra Mims Rowe. "It's a thin line, especially when the story is so incremental."

In mid-October, the Oregonian was caught in the maelstrom. In an effort to calm readers' fears as more infections surfaced, editors opted to run a locally produced story on page one headlined: "Nature of Anthrax Doesn't Warrant High Anxiety." As the first edition was being printed, the Oregonian received a new, more disturbing story from the Associated Press.

Government officials were saying that the anthrax mailed to Daschle's office was a far more lethal form. Editors quickly revised the front page, Rowe says, running the wire story with a "big strip headline."

"This shows just how fast the story is moving," she says. "The truth is, as a newspaper editor, all you can do is apply your own best standards."

At the Providence Journal, Peter B. Lord, a veteran environmental writer, quickly acquired the bioterrorism beat. Helping the public understand the anthrax furor became a main focus of his job as part of a team of 10 reporters charged with maintaining a flow of stories on the crisis.

"Our policy is to be evenhanded, stick to the facts, tell people what they need to know, but in a measured way, so that we don't add to their stress," Lord says. "The fact is, in Rhode Island, there has been no anthrax. We need to remind our readers of that."

Meyers of the National Press Foundation would like to remind the public of something else. When journalists cover attacks where the enemy is shrouded in mystery, motive and the amount of destructive power are unknown, and even the FBI and CIA are stumped, there are no easy answers to help ease anxiety.

"I know people look to us for explanations, but this is not a sitcom; it's not a perfectly squared-off story. It's messy and constantly evolving. There are no neat answers in something like this," says Meyers, who has worked for the Washington Post and the now San Diego Union-Tribune. "This is a tremendously unique time in America's history. As we often heard after 9-11, nothing ever will be the same."

Sidebar journalism might be one way to provide explanation, put anthrax in context and calm fears, says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. He urges reporters to shove aside "Casablanca Rolodexes full of the usual suspects" in favor of developing new sources in science and health to offer fresh perspectives and expertise.

"We didn't turn to the right experts soon enough. We allowed the story to fester and grow legs. We've been battered with anxious text without medical expertise," says Felling. "Old-fashioned news sense still applies here."

Throughout the country, journalists became the focus of the news as suspicious mail showed up on their desks. St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler says he is accustomed to handling letters from kooks. One of his former tormentors closed tirades with, "I hope you get cancer." Another signs off as Jesus Christ. On October 9, Troxler opened an envelope and white powder spilled out.

A coworker called security. A hazardous material team quickly showed up. Troxler's desk was roped off with yellow police tape, and he was advised to go home and shower. The powder turned out to be cornstarch, but the scare put the newspaper's security policies under review.

"Clearly we are not going to pull up the drawbridge," says Times Editor and President Paul Tash. "We cover the world, and we have to be connected to it."

At the Columbus Dispatch, Features Editor Steve Berry opened a Halloween card filled with a powdery substance. The fourth floor of the Ohio newspaper's six-story building was quarantined for two hours and the elevators were shut down. The air conditioning was switched off as police stood guard outside. Local TV stations rushed to the scene.

In the wake of the scare, which turned out to be a hoax, the newspaper instigated a series of 30-minute classes about what constitutes suspect mail.

Steve Oswalt, a 15-year veteran of KCCI-TV in Des Moines, was fired after he sprinkled face powder around the newsroom in front of coworkers in early October. Oswalt's attorney maintains it was done in "a joking manner." "I don't know how any reasonable person could believe that Steve had anthrax," his lawyer told a Des Moines Register reporter.

To the station's news manager, it was not a laughing matter. He had Oswalt, a prize-winning reporter, escorted from the building.

Separating the real from the phony was a problem elsewhere. Often, news consumers had to work through a haze of conflicting information. When ABC aired an exclusive report that government investigators had found a substance in the anthrax that had been used by Iraq in its biological weapons program, possibly implicating Saddam Hussein as a suspect, the Bush administration quickly denied it.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer challenged ABC to produce its sources. ABC responded that it was confident the reporting was sound. Neither side gave in and the issue has not been resolved.

In October, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, "Washington is rife with contradictory signals. The White House urges us to go out while Dick Cheney is under wraps. Congress urges us to stay calm and go about our business while the entire House takes a powder at the first sign of powder. We are supposed to shop till we drop, literally, as the FBI and CIA warn of major attacks at any moment."

Perhaps the most glaring case of dissonance occurred after a letter containing anthrax was discovered in Senate Majority Leader Daschle's office. In dueling press conferences, House Speaker Dennis Hastert reported that the anthrax was wafting through a Senate building's ventilation system. Not so, said Daschle.

Several lawmakers noted they were told in briefings that the anthrax was "weapon grade." Daschle said he was never told that. The incident supported Dowd's premise that "the capital is the heart of confusion." By November, little had changed.

With officials at odds on key issues, journalists encountered a major challenge in figuring out what to publish and air.

A month after Robert Stevens' death, the anthrax mystery remained unsolved and some reporters were showing the strain of covering a steady stream of traumatic news. Helen Kennedy, a Washington correspondent for New York's Daily News, told colleagues, "I don't want Cipro; I want antidepressants."

Predictions of more catastrophic attacks loomed on the horizon. On October 28, writing in the Washington Post's Sunday magazine, Shannon Brownlee reminded Americans that smallpox may be the scariest thing in the biowarfare arsenal.

The reporter posed an unnerving question: "What would we do could we do if smallpox were the terrorists' next weapon of choice?" Like so much else since September 11, Brownlee found no answers to allay the growing fears.

Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi wrote two pieces in AJR's November issue, about covering the war in Afghanistan and about coping with the trauma of covering horrific events. Editorial assistant Shannon E. Canton contributed research to this story.