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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.