AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 2003

High Anxiety   

Americans made a panic-fueled run on duct tape and plastic sheeting in the wake of government terrorism warnings. Sure, the media were merely the messengers, but many news organizations could have reported this story with more context and less hype.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

In one of the surreal moments amid coverage of the February orange terror alert--and in an age of color-coded levels of threat, there were a number of surreal moments--the MSNBC show "Buchanan and Press" sought to explore whether the media were hyping the alert stories. It was February 13, and MSNBC had that little "Terror Alert: High" label affixed to the bottom corner of its screen. But the network wasn't shy in discussing that target of much lambasting and ridicule. Bill Press introduced Washington Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher, asking, "Do you really think that the media would, for the sake of ratings, fan the flames about an orange terror alert?"

Fisher's response: "Sure."

"Would we stoop that low?" asked Press.

"Yes, absolutely."

You can't say that the media weren't concerned about how they were covering this confusing, scary and, most of the time, shadowy story--from the raising of the terror alert on February 7; to the water, batteries, duct tape and plastic sheeting advice on February 10; to all those reaction stories on fear and indifference, to tape or not to tape. Most news executives say they continually have conversations about how to cover alarming stories, how to inform people without inciting fear. They don't take these things lightly.

But many say that this time around, they did a poor job of it. The critics came out in force.

"We seem to have only one volume these days: very loud," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "I think it's entirely possible to write about potential terror attacks and suggested precautions without in effect yelling from the rooftops, and yet that's something that modern media or today's media seem to have great difficulty with."

Likewise, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, seems almost resigned to the belief that the media don't always take seriously their responsibility to think about how stories will affect people. "That's such a quaint notion," says Kaplan. Especially on television, with its dramatic "Showdown Iraq" and "Countdown Iraq" branding, he says, "everything gets turned into a soap opera.... Yes, they have a responsibility not to scare the wits out of us, and no, they don't live up to that responsibility. But that long ago has gone away.... The notion that the press should be responsible probably existed in our gauzy memory."

Living in this massive-amount-of-media culture, one does have the feeling that the are-you-afraid? coverage was too flamboyant. But hysteria was hardly universal: Some news organizations either held back on or underplayed their stories, depending on your viewpoint. The Boston Globe, for instance, ran the February 11 story on how to prepare for a terrorist attack on A5; the Chicago Tribune put it on A12; and the New York Times shoved it back to A16. The Los Angeles Times didn't run it at all. CBS' and NBC's evening newscasts talked about "duct tape and plastic sheeting" in larger pieces, sure, but they weren't alarmist. A day or two later, though, the networks, like everyone else, were chasing after the fear-factor phenomenon.

Endless discussions about duct tape dominated cable news shows. Reports surfaced that a man in Connecticut had wrapped his house in plastic. A whole new genre of jokes was born. "Anxiety" made the cover of Newsweek and Time, the latter taking a comic look at the frenzy by picturing an eyeball peeking out from crisscross swaths of silver-gray tape.

"The truth is really...we didn't think it was much of a story until it created this panic," says Los Angeles Times National Editor Scott Kraft, who adds that people on the West Coast were not nearly as concerned about being the target of an attack.

It seemed no matter how softly some news organizations had initially whispered "duct tape and plastic sheeting," the words provoked quite a reaction. And the disparate play this story received suggests the media were in just as much disagreement as the public about what to do with this information.

Some news organizations played both the terror alert and the government advice stories prominently. The Washington Post and USA Today, Cleveland's Plain Dealer and the Miami Herald, Pennsylvania's Lancaster New Era and Allentown Morning Call ran stories on government advice on page one. Editors had no doubt that this was big news, and they don't buy charges that they were scaring the public.

"Washington is increasingly being singled out as a potential target," says Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "And so our readers are really nervous even if we didn't put anything in the paper."

Some people, he continues, feel the media shouldn't be talking about these things--that it makes people afraid. "I don't feel that's right," he says. "We now know information before the September 11 attacks didn't get disseminated." The possibility that valuable information about an attack wouldn't be released is "a great fear of mine."

What the coverage lacked, say critics, was context, perspective and, initially, critical examination of government advice. The public was made aware of different types of possible attacks--chemical, biological and radiological--with not much explanation of what is more likely to occur (and what is extremely unlikely to occur) or what the scope of the damage could be. Reading the early media coverage gave one the impression that a nuclear holocaust could occur tomorrow. Despite the volume of news stories, say critics, the media raised more questions than they answered. It really wasn't clear how all of that duct tape and plastic sheeting was to be deployed, and under what circumstances it would help.

Stories on the alerts and related precautions "have to be couched and put into proper perspective," says Calvin Sims, a former visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently taught a course on the media and terrorism at Princeton. Perhaps the public reaction would have been muted, he says, had someone explained that you have to be skilled to effectively seal a room with duct tape, or that it's unlikely there would be an attack on such a large scale that you would need to use the tape.

"I think the coverage so far falls into a couple of categories," says Karen Brown Dunlap, dean/president-designate of the Poynter Institute. "Media have done a good job at just providing the information, and that's basically saying what the government is saying.... They're not quite doing as good a job in analyzing what the government is saying.... You sense a certain reserve in challenging the government too much."

The vagueness of the coverage wasn't a comfort to anyone. "The sort of questions I wanted to have answered weren't answered," says Sims, now a New York Times reporter. "In the event of an attack, what kind of a response can we expect?... Why do we need to stock water for three days?"

When the government raised the terror alert level to orange, or "high," on February 7, most news organizations led with that story. (The New York Times played it on A8, though an A1 story about France and China opposing war on Iraq mentioned the high alert.) There were signs early on that some journalists were doing their best to ferret out why and if the orange designation was warranted.

The Washington Post, for example, included this interesting paragraph in its story: "However, others with access to the intelligence upon which the alert was based said it was largely an effort to make sure government officials could not be blamed for not warning Americans, as they were after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 'That's what this whole process is about,' said one well-placed intelligence source."

While public anxiety probably increased somewhat, it was nothing compared with what would soon take place. Everything changed after the duct tape.

When the government raised the alert, Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, urged people to talk to their families and be prepared for a potential terrorist attack. Some news organizations referred their viewers or readers to Web sites for more information on what they could do.

But on February 10, Department of Homeland Security officials held what one reporter calls "a poorly organized press conference to put out an extremely complicated message."

Nine days later, officials would launch the "Ready" campaign that was much clearer and more detailed in terms of explaining which items were more important to have in the event of an attack. But once the alert was raised to orange February 7, officials decided to hold a briefing, led by U.S. Fire Administrator David Paulison and department spokesman Gordon Johndroe, to get some advice out to the public in a hurry.

The reporter quoted earlier feels some journalists didn't take the briefing as seriously as they should have, commenting as they left that this information had been on Web sites months ago. That's true, says this reporter, but "what percentage of people had actually heard of this?... It was not news because anybody in government had ever said it before in some remote Web site. It was news because...they were worried it was going to happen. It was connected to a real fear."

That fear quickly went public. The next day, after reading and seeing news reports, people ran out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. The reporter at the briefing "totally" expected the public reaction. "Were they overreacting to media hype? Hell no.... The government people who really get this aren't saying that it's an overreaction for people to say they need to have water and food in their home...and even have plastic sheeting and duct tape.... This represents the most sophisticated thinking in civil preparedness in this country."

Mimi Hall, homeland security reporter for USA Today, says officials took some steps to curb potential panic: Cameras were not allowed at the briefing, which was conducted by Johndroe, not Tom Ridge. It would have been much more dramatic, Hall says, to have the homeland security chief on camera telling Americans to assemble their survival kits. Despite that, Hall says she thought most reporters at the briefing thought it was "a pretty big deal."

"It was significant that you had representatives of the federal government telling all Americans to take steps like this." She says editors and reporters at USA Today debated how the story should be played and how it should be written, and they felt it was "significant enough to put on page one. We certainly felt we were being really responsible with it."

The media reports were chilling. "Terror Attack Steps Urged" was the off-lead on the Washington Post's front page February 11. The Post noted that "officials suggested privately that they do not want the gravity of the threat overlooked."

Downie says he didn't think that putting the story on the front page would unduly frighten readers. "People thinking the media are scaring people have a rather low opinion of the American public," he says, adding that those in the Washington area were already concerned about a possible attack. "Whether we put a story on the front page does not raise or lower that concern."

Downie may be underestimating the influence of an off-lead in a paper of the Post's stature. Even the Post's Marc Fisher remarked on MSNBC: "It was my own newspaper that got people to head out to Home Depot and start buying duct tape and plastic sheeting by putting a story on the front page."

Looking at the coverage that day, some news outlets certainly deemed the story to be more urgent than others.

The New York Times' front page featured a photo of increased security in Times Square, with the following refer: "The Bush administration issued guidelines on how to prepare for a terrorist attack. Page A16." That story twice stressed that officials were not issuing advice because of an impending strike. The fourth paragraph: " 'There is no specific, credible intelligence that says an attack using chemical or biological weapons is imminent,' said Gordon Johndroe."

A Times spokeswoman said that editors at the paper would not discuss their handling of this story, saying they don't want to be put in a position of defending their coverage or comparing it with what other news organizations did. The reporter who wrote the February 11 story, Philip Shenon, did not return phone calls. But apparently the Times wanted to be doubly sure officials didn't know more than they were revealing. The story later included this: "Mr. Johndroe said in a telephone interview that the administration had long been planning to organize a public education campaign about disaster preparedness, and that today's news conference was not meant to signal an imminent threat."

The Wall Street Journal's story, which ran on D1, included a similar line: "[T]he government restated that it had no specific information that a particular attack was imminent." USA Today included this quote from Johndroe: "We don't have any specific intelligence that says everyone should rush out to the grocery store." (But in a mixed message all too typical of the episode, later in the same story law enforcement officials said "an attack against Jewish-owned businesses or other high-profile targets is 'imminent.' ")

The nature of the government's advice had to suggest to many readers that officials must know something more. Should such qualifiers (that there was no evidence of an impending attack) have been included in all stories? And did their absence--from articles in the Post and other news outlets--make stories sound too alarming? Says Downie: "I'm just not as concerned about that tone.... Our responsibility is to tell [readers] as much as we can about...realistic possibilities of the threat."

The Washington Times did not share the Post's zeal. The paper's A3 story, "Higher alert level spurs tighter aviation security," focused on airspace restrictions and relegated scant information on the need for public precautions to the last three paragraphs. Homeland security reporter Audrey Hudson says her paper played the story "absolutely" where it should have. Hudson monitored the February 10 briefing from the office and called the Federal Emergency Management Agency to confirm her sense that this was old news. She says a spokeswoman told her, "Yeah, we did that last year, and we mailed it to the media and nobody paid attention to it." For Hudson, "It was more newsy that there were restrictions on air that had gone into effect," she says.

Other papers had a more difficult time: They had to judge how important this was from wire stories. Joycelyn Winnecke, associate managing editor for national news at the Chicago Tribune, expresses frustration that her paper wasn't included in that February 10 government briefing. "The reason we were so upset to be excluded...was that we didn't feel like we had the information necessary to judge what [the Department of Homeland Security was] trying to do.... We felt like we were in the dark, and we were hearing from people we were interviewing that they were in the dark, too."

The briefing, says Winnecke, was geared to East Coast newspapers (officials said they were particularly concerned about threats against New York and Washington). But that left others without the information they needed to evaluate the recommendations. For that reason, and the fact that the story came over the wires late in the day, the Tribune ran it on page 12.

Winnecke says Tribune editors have tried to avoid panicking readers with their terrorism coverage. "Our managing editor [James O'Shea] specifically raised the point that we need to be careful with our stories," she says. For instance, in articles about people rushing out to buy duct tape, reporters need to "capture what's really going on" and make sure they don't "fuel something that shouldn't be fueled."

The first A1 story the Tribune ran on the subject was on February 13, headlined, "Critics unglued by government's advice to buy duct tape." Many said such precautions wouldn't offer much protection and compared the advice to the "duck and cover" guidelines during the Cold War--which now seem quite silly.

The Post's Downie acknowledges he would have liked to have included such duct-tape questioning on day one. The paper, he says, initially did not consult enough "outside-the-government experts" on whether this advice was solid. The Post ran such a piece two days later.

Critics, and some journalists, agree the questioning should have come sooner.

Marcy McGinnis, CBS' senior vice president for news coverage, says perhaps the media were late to go beneath the surface. When there's a press conference, the initial reaction "is to take in the information and spit it back out again.... One important thing is saying, 'Wait a second, what exactly are you telling us to do?' " But there's not always two-way communication. "There's not always an opportunity to say, 'What's this all about?' "

CBS News, not unlike ABC, NBC, cable news and a number of papers far removed from Washington and New York, stepped up its coverage when it became apparent some people were freaking out. "It picked up steam as the days went on, I guess as people said, 'Oh my God, I better get survival kits,' " says McGinnis. "The more that started to happen, the more [the media were] writing about it."

Downie likewise emphasizes that the Post "is reflecting the concern of our community instead of driving the concern."

But did the reaction to the concern simply fuel greater concern?

Many newspapers ran boxes that explained what chemical, biological and radiological attacks were and how you could best protect yourself in the event of one. They ran Q&A columns that tried to provide simple answers to public concerns. And they detailed what constitutes a survival kit with bulleted items.

But critics say such lists weren't helping. "Newspapers and television love lists, and that's part of our sort of self-help and news-you-can-use mentality," says Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. "But I think under these circumstances, there needs to be a very careful vetting of the suggestions by the government as soon as possible so people can read these lists in as accurate a context as possible."

Giles says the overreaction of the public wasn't unusual; many people horde supplies when a hurricane is approaching. "The government and the press both need to recognize that this is a natural impulse when these kinds of alarms are raised," he says. "Instead of simply reporting...the lists of what would go into a safety locker, there should be some interrogation of public officials as to why would you put this in there, when would you use it.... Maybe there could have been some stronger reporting at the very beginning that might have prevented this."

Journalists say it's tough to raise questions immediately, and with this story there was an additional hurdle: Homeland security is brand-new territory. "We are inventing coverage of an area where very few if any reporters have spent time working on these issues before," says Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief. "I think you are beginning to see those stories sifting though all the different kinds of emergencies and various possible responses. But it's taking longer than I think most readers wanted, and I think they were right to want the information right away. I went searching through the papers myself."

Before January, Audrey Hudson was covering Congress for the Washington Times. Then she got the new homeland security beat. The halls of the Capitol, this is not. "It is very challenging," she says. "You're sort of isolated.... Your sources are limited and the information is limited."

USA Today has tried to answer readers' questions. The paper ran a Q&A on February 11, and a more comprehensive one the next day that addressed different types of threats. The paper also referred people to the FEMA Web site. Says Hall: "We tried to do what we could to provide the information, but you're right, it does raise questions, and these things are extremely complicated." For example, with chemical attacks, she says, there are different steps people should take depending on the various kinds of chemicals that could be employed.

The charge that people just weren't given enough--or the right--information is prevalent. Some go so far as to say that the media have been timid in criticizing the government for fear that an attack might occur. "I think there is abject fear about that. I absolutely do," says Hub Brown, a former local TV news reporter and documentary producer who teaches broadcast journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. The media are "afraid that if we question it too much and something does happen...[it] makes us sound like we're bashing the system and makes us sound unpatriotic."

The Post's Kurtz says, "There's a certain reluctance, except perhaps on the part of late-night comics, to criticize government warnings, just in case something big does happen. But that doesn't mean that journalists have to act as if doomsday is just around the corner."

Certainly the press, like the government, wouldn't want to be in a position of failing to warn the public of an attack. But some journalists don't buy the "timid" charge. CNN's Keith McAllister, executive vice president for national newsgathering, says, "I think my view of patriotism is if I'm doing my job well.... My job is to report the news and to ask tough questions" and to find the truth.

Reporters would love to have more information from officials, says Hall, but they're only going to get so much. "We all feel somewhat helpless in the face of terrorist threats both as reporters and as citizens, I think," she says. "You want to convey as much information as possible to an anxious public, but there's only so much you can do.... We have to take government officials sort of at their word on this more than we might otherwise" because so much of the information is classified or exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Washington Post has been the most aggressive paper on this story, at least in terms of the sheer amount of coverage. It's a local story for the paper, says Downie, and his philosophy is the more information, the better.

On February 12, the Post ran a photo of a woman shopping for duct tape and plastic sheeting on the front page, with a refer to the survival-frenzy story on the Metro front. Many critics say these reaction stories are important because they give the press and government officials an idea of how people are responding. The scare in Washington lasted more than one day, however, and the Post carried two more stories on whether people were afraid or not.

Kurtz says the reaction stories--not just in his paper; everyone carried something on the duct-tape panic--were too much. It's a legitimate story, he says. "I just think they should have been scaled way back.... [T]o pound away at this on the front page day after day was the newsprint equivalent of saturation cable coverage. It's a very easy story to do and it tells you almost nothing other than that some people out there are starting to get nervous."

Slowly, perspective trickled into some media reports. On March 16, the Post published a special section on emergency preparedness that had a decidedly different tone: calm. The lead piece reminded readers of the incredibly low probability of dying from terrorism (less than the 1-in-4.5 million chance of death by lightning) and talked about the great number of people who escape attacks unharmed. The Post spelled out the unknowns--saying it couldn't predict how likely an attack is or what kind might occur. A story on respirators laid out the pros and cons of each type and cautioned that incorrectly using a gas mask could result in death. A massive evacuation is very unlikely, the Post reported, and smallpox is considered a "low-probability, high-impact risk."

You get a sense from talking with both media critics and people in Washington that they needed this type of information to cling to--something that gives the public an idea of how fearful they should really be, and of what, something that puts the risks in context. (Some experts and columnists did make comments about the small statistical chance of being the victim of a terrorist attack, but these were lost in the din.) And by discussing multiple terrorism possibilities and trotting out experts to talk about gas masks and hazmat suits, say critics, the media provided lots of information, sure, but left the public wondering what to make of it all.

Syracuse's Hub Brown says more sober discussions were needed. "It's up to the news organizations to put this into perspective." When you combine the government precautions story with news of another Osama bin Laden audiotape, released on February 11, and more talk of a potential war with Iraq, how can someone who's watching this not be afraid? he asks.

But it is difficult to tell people what to do in a nonfrightening way against a background of intelligence "chatter" that doesn't provide the time, location or method of an attack.

Some critics are willing to cut the media, and the government, some slack. Everybody's new at this, says Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You can't blame us on being confused on how to...establish warning systems in the first place and how to react to them in the second place," Meyer says. "You can't expect the government or the media to get it right" the first time out.

From the Onion's February 26 issue: "Orange Alert Sirens To Blow 24 Hours A Day In Major Cities." It was the perfect comic commentary on the government's mixed messages. The satirical story included this fake quote from Tom Ridge: "These 130-decibel sirens, which, beginning Friday, will scream all day and night in the nation's 50 largest metro areas, will serve as a helpful reminder to citizens to stay on the lookout for suspicious activity.... Please note, though, that this is merely a precautionary measure, so go about your lives as normal."

Indeed, some say officials deserve the blame for spreading fear and confusion, not the press. "I don't see the problem with the media," says Meyer. "I see it with the administration not making up its mind on how it wants people to behave."

Says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association: "It's so important for the government to provide as much information as possible.... Rather than causing panic, information can help dispel panic." She says the problems that have arisen are more because of the government's message than the media's relaying of that information. On February 11, she says, we "get a warning that everyone should go and buy duct tape and plastic sheeting.... Three or four days later, the message is...well, we didn't really mean everybody."

Two days after the Department of Homeland Security included duct tape and plastic sheeting in its list of recommendations, U.S. officials emphasized that constructing a safe room wasn't the priority. Stockpiling food and water was more important. Two days later Ridge and President Bush were trying to institute some calm. "I want to make something very, very clear at this point," Ridge said. "We do not want individuals or families to start sealing their doors or windows."

And there were other signs that public relations wasn't the new department's strong point. According to Time magazine, Ridge told senators at a private meeting that there was a "50 percent or greater" chance of an attack against the U.S. in the following weeks. But the secretary's spokesman denied he said that. On February 7 on ABC's "Nightline," Ridge put the threat of a major attack happening in the next few weeks at an eight on a scale of 10. He later told PBS' Jim Lehrer: Ted Koppel is "a very good journalist and he got me to do something that initially I started to say I'm not going to do.... But I gave him a number and rue the day, obviously."

Officials seemed to be struggling with what they should say and how they should say it. For journalists, this reinforced the frustrating nature of the story.

Scott Kraft, national editor at the Los Angeles Times, says part of the discussion editors have about where to play terror alerts includes an evaluation of the strength of the government's information. Kraft says the paper needs to be careful about overplaying such news if officials aren't forthcoming about what their actions are based upon. The L.A. Times did run the news of the terror alert going up and then down on the front page.

But, in the end, there still wasn't a clear idea of why the alert had changed, he says. "I feel like the reporting [by all media] on the reasons for the alert level having gone up, on what it was based upon, has been kind of all over the map," Kraft says. "A few people have suggested that maybe the White House was hoping to gain some support for the potential war in Iraq." On the other hand, others say the raising of the alert was legitimate, he says. "I don't as a reader sit here and feel I know the answer.... We understand why the government is stingy in sharing some of this.... There is a sense from Washington that the American people should just trust us on this."

The paper isn't giving up, mind you. "We're always trying to find out what the extent of the threat is," he says. "That's a reporting track that we have several people on."

On March 17, when President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to go into exile or face a military attack, the alert jumped back up to orange. This time, the reasoning was clear: A war against Iraq could spark terrorist strikes.

The duct tape story didn't get any easier as the doubting experts came forward; it just got more confusing.

The February 11 edition of ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" quickly raised questions about the effectiveness of duct tape in the face of a terror attack. "The recommendation to use duct tape and plastic is going to cause more fear and will have virtually no effect on any protection," said Dr. Peter Katona of UCLA's medical school.

But the next day, the network's "Good Morning America" aired a segment on how to properly pick and seal a safe room, with the show's home improvement editor helping a family in Connecticut tape up their laundry room. "USE DUCT TAPE AND PLASTIC SHEETING 4-6MM THICK," read a graphic.

A case of media confusion?

"I don't think there was confusion on how to report the story," says Jeffrey W. Schneider, ABC News vice president. "I think the whole country was trying to understand...what the advice was that they were giving." It was clear, he says, "that different people had different opinions about how to interpret that information.... On the one hand, you could be a little skeptical about duct tape and plastic sheeting, and on the other hand, there appeared to be some efficacy of using those materials."

A variation on the above example could be given for any number of news organizations. One day on CBS' "Early Show," Harvey Kushner, owner of the personal security store Safer America, showed a somewhat skeptical Hannah Storm what kind of gas masks and hazmat suits people could buy. That night, CBS News questioned whether duct tape could offer any real protection. If people are concerned about their security and health, said one expert, what they should really do is "stop smoking, wear their seatbelt and not drink and drive."

CBS' McGinnis says the network received a lot of e-mails from people asking what types of protection are available. "It's not us saying what you should do," she says of segments like the one with Kushner. "It's telling people what there is." The network gives people information and allows them to make their own decisions, she says.

There was also a range of messages coming from experts and health officials. So viewers could see terrorism expert Brian Jenkins offering this bit of reassurance on CNBC: "We can't overreact to this. Even the heightened probability of a terrorist attack does not automatically translate into great danger to the individual citizen." And the same day, CNN's Mike Brooks, cautioning, "We can't also forget some of the small towns. Some people say, 'I live in Smalltown, USA, nothing's going to happen here.' I think we were proved wrong when we looked at Oklahoma City and the bombing of the Murrah federal building there.... So no matter where you are, from a small town to a large town, here in the United States, you have to remain vigilant."

More mixed messages to add to the stew.

It's also possible that stories about terror alerts and intelligence and what to do about it all will never be clear. After September 11, news reports revealed information that suggested the attacks could have been prevented. John Miller and Michael Stone pinpointed the warning signs in their book "The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, And Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It." Yet, in the March 10 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell makes a convincing argument that it would not have been that easy. Gladwell uses a number of examples to show that evaluating intelligence before--instead of after--an attack is complicated, mired by much false information and bogus tips.

The public is going to depend on the press to serve as a guide through whatever confusing messages we're sure to receive in the future. But public attention fades faster than news coverage. And skepticism, it seems, is destined to rise.

On February 28, the day after the country's threat level went back down to code yellow, the Los Angeles Times carried the story on the front page. But National Editor Kraft wondered how many times the alert could fluctuate before it was no longer news. "If it had happened five or six times, [the story] probably wouldn't be as strong," unless more powerful evidence was produced, he says.

The Boston Globe didn't put the lowering of the alert on page one. Editor Martin Baron says the news came "well after the period of greatest apparent concern had passed." It had been two weeks, he points out, since the end of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca during which officials had said an attack might come. The day before, National Editor Kenneth Cooper said he mentioned the alert change in the morning meeting, and "there were a few chuckles." He doubted the news would make the front page. It ran on A13.

Even journalists' attention can fade before a change in the terror alert.

Unfortunately, the media are at the beginning of the learning curve with this story. "To some degree, the learning experience of the U.S. government is similar to that of journalists in this country," says CNN's Keith McAllister. "They're not exactly sure how to handle it either, and they're learning as they go."

There are no rule books to consult, says Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president, live news programming. The media aren't quite making it up as they go along, Effron says, but they're constantly thinking about what's appropriate. "It's as much instinct as anything else."