- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

ON MEDIA

Anthrax, Part II is an even bigger media production than last week's frantic celebration of spores and nasal swabs. Sequels often rely on dramatic derivations of old material to lure in an audience, and this week's coverage is no exception.

Bioterrorism has become the vehicle for alarmist drama, cliffhanger mystery, junk science, conspiracy theories, fingerpointing and confusion amid scattered attempts at straightforward journalism.

Overzealous descriptions abound. "The anthrax toll escalated dramatically, stunning health officials," stated the Boston Herald. New Anthrax deaths were a "chilling sign that authorities have yet to contain the nation's bioterror threat," proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle. NBC news dubbed the cases "a public health nightmare."

CBS' Dan Rather, meanwhile, coined the phrase "anthrax assassination attempt," while on ABC, Peter Jennings waxed poetic: "Before the post office, the Pony Express which delivered the mail advertised for workers willing to risk death daily. Today the post office confronts the threat of biological terror."

In some media circles, anthrax became a disturbing saga of the haves and have-nots. "Are you not at all bothered that white-collar workers on Capitol Hill were quickly tested while blue-collar workers associated with the post office were being told they had nothing to worry about?" CBS asked D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism school and think tank, approves of the heavy coverage as long as journalists stay credible.

When it comes to coverage of bioterrorism," he noted, "journalists need to come as close to the saturation point as possible without changing the color of the solution. For once, the liquid turns from crystal clear to red, we cross from a world of caution and vigilance to one of panic and paranoia."

Despite clear medical or consumer information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the U.S. Postal Service, even scientific accounts loomed large on the drama meter.

Anthrax was "a patient assassin waiting for its sleep to be disturbed," said a New York Times account. "Then begins a precise but terrible execution."

CBS offered obtuse theories about anthrax spores traveling on clothing, though the CDC has clearly stated that such things don't pose a risk. The situation has prompted some to suddenly expand their realm of expertise.

Yesterday, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri said the suspect anthrax "aerosolizes" and was of "weapons grade," contradicting the opinion of Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security. CNN's "bioterrorism analyst" Javid Ali referred to the "art of weaponization" yesterday, adding that the term meant "different things to different people."

But there are some reassuring voices of reason for a confused public. "If anything, you're going to be overdiagnosed. You're going to get treated really quickly, and the chance of getting really sick from anthrax are diminishing every day because we're aware of it," Dr. Erika Schwartz told MSNBC.

The citizenry needs to extract fact from fear during "anthrax hype," wrote Dr. Jon Wesley Boyd for Time magazine. "Even though everyone seems to feel like they're living in the crosshairs of terrorists' scopes, I must break the bad news: Almost none of us matter to terrorists. We don't count."

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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