BOB GARFIELD: Amid the hoopla over Kerry's pick, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called a press conference Thursday to warn Americans that Al Qaeda is planning a large-scale strike on the U.S. before November's elections. He said the government knows neither when, where nor how, but just so's we know. If an attack does occur, the government would rely even more on the media to communicate with the public. In the second part of his series on Homeland Security readiness, OTM's John Solomon looks at how the government and the media are now working together to prepare for the possibility of such an event.
JOHN SOLOMON: This is only a test.
ANNOUNCER: We'll have an update on the traffic and your weekend weather forecast when we do traffic and weather together on the 1's. WZXE news time -- 10:30. [SOUND OF EXPLOSION, PEOPLE SCREAMING]
JOHN SOLOMON: This was a mock broadcast created for a terror simulation exercise for journalists at April's National Association of Broadcasters convention. The event kicked off a new 10-city media training program jointly sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, the National Academies, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the RTNDA. Separately, experts from the Centers for Disease Control have begun touring media organizations to brief journalists on potential terror threats and to develop working relationships for the future. Donna Knudson is the director of the CDC's Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.
DONNA KNUDSON: One of the, the prime rules for emergency response is: you don't want to meet the people that are helping you in the response in the middle of the crisis.
JOHN SOLOMON: Those initial meetings have already yielded insights, according to RTNDA Executive Director Barbara Cochran.
BARBARA COCHRAN: There's just this natural tension between the officials who are trying to get on top of the situation and the news media who are trying to report it. The officials want to make sure that they have all the i's dotted and t's crossed before they come out and say something, and in the meanwhile, the media's out there reporting, and so officials really need to be prepared to start providing information much more rapidly, much earlier in the process than they are probably used to thinking of.
JOHN SOLOMON: According to Homeland Security's Susan Neely, the government is thinking about it.
SUSAN NEELY: The media says to us: We need your spokespeople to be out there quickly, pulling it together for us so that we can get the information out to the public. So we kind of talked through that, and it helps us on the government end come back and figure out how can we accelerate our procedures so that we're, you know, able to - again, speed, speed, speed and, and be speedy in an accurate way.
JOHN SOLOMON: Neely says Homeland Security officials learned from the confused public reaction to last's year's botched duct tape announcement.
SUSAN NEELY: I remind my colleagues here: remember the lesson of duct tape. We cannot wait to get out there and answer questions. If we see there's some confusion out there or there's a rumor that we believe to be inaccurate, we should always err on the side of going out and explaining it through the media.
JOHN SOLOMON: Another lesson learned is that well-prepared agency briefers always need to be available --even when there's no new news to report. That's so air-time vacuums are not filled with speculation.
DONNA KNUDSON: The biggest issue for the media for a terrorism event is - or any public health emergency - would probably be patience.
JOHN SOLOMON: The CDC's Donna Knudson.
DONNA KNUDSON: We have a philosophy at CDC -- we'll tell you everything we know now, and when we know more, we'll tell you that, too. But it's not like we can instantly diagnose what's going on. We can't instantly determine who's been exposed and who hasn't, and, and we can't speed science up for the sake of media.
JOHN SOLOMON: But Knudson acknowledges that the agency did not provide clear and complete information during the 2001 anthrax attacks. Now they're trying to address likely questions in advance, such as: how long will it take to get results on anthrax tests? It's the way the CDC hopes to vaccinate itself from media suspicion when answers are not immediately forthcoming. Richard Preston, who wrote about the anthrax attacks in his book Demon in the Freezer, says that journalists need to understand that science is more about the unknown than the known.
RICHARD PRESTON: I think it's very important to give the public the sense that we are dealing here with unknowns, but this is what is being done to find out the answers, and these are the answers that we need to know, and this is why it's important.
JOHN SOLOMON: Donna Knudson.
DONNA KNUDSON: We're more than willing to, to help with that. The media and reporters have skills in different ways than our scientists do, and we wouldn't want you to drop those skills and become scientists, because I just think we need to work together to be able to explain the, the complex science in a way that not only reporters but the general public can understand.
JOHN SOLOMON: Cooperative efforts between media and government, though, are complicated by concern about violating traditional tenets of journalism, says the RTNDA's Barbara Cochran.
BARBARA COCHRAN: There is a discomfort. In the past, I think you know, news media organizations wanted to keep an arms-length distance from government, but I think, you know, given these kinds of situations, they realize the importance of a dialogue and, and planning.
JOHN SOLOMON: Joe Neel, NPR News' Deputy Science Editor, admits to some skepticism because of the Bush administration's strict control on public health information, but he says the CDC's visit to NPR was helpful.
JOE NEEL: As an assignment editor, I need to decide whether someone needs to go out to the site and how soon and how close they should get, and our impulse in news is to get there and get as close as you can and get the mike right up to whatever is going on. What I think we took away is that journalists probably are not going to be very valuable right up at the scene, and probably if you do try to put a journalist in that position, you risk that person's life.
JOHN SOLOMON: But on the other hand, Neel says:
JOE NEEL: I think it's very important for journalists to be as close to the scene as possible so that they can begin reporting on it, telling the public the facts, because in any kind of catastrophe or-- certainly on even a smaller-scale emergency, rumors start spreading instantly, and panic begins to start, and then you have even more problems. So I think journalists have a huge role to play in seeking the truth and getting it out there, but we also don't want a lot of dead journalists.
JOHN SOLOMON: All six major television news organizations refused to comment on their domestic terror coverage plans. [TAPE PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER: In case of enemy attack or grave national emergency, keep listening to your radio. The Emergency Broadcast System will immediately bring you official information and instructions. Stations will not give call letters but will identify the area they're serving. So dial around till you find the right one in your area, and then follow the instructions given.
JOHN SOLOMON: The Emergency Broadcasting System was the old way that the government and media worked together to alert the public, but its successor, the Emergency Alert System, was not even activated by President Bush on 9/11. The administration plans to solicit industry and public comment on whether the EAS should be scrapped or rebuilt. But none of this matters if the broadcast media can't stay on the air because of a terrorist strike, so after 9/11, the FCC created a special task force of communication executives and government officials to ensure the security of the nation's broadcast facilities. Barbara Kreisman is the chief of the FCC's Video Division.
BARBARA KREISMAN: We don't have five years to figure this out. We have a very short period of time, because we don't know when we're going to need a plan, so there is a sense of urgency.
JOHN SOLOMON: Both the media and government are trying to prepare together for every worst case scenario, yet both sides agree that the new cooperative efforts will be valuable to them, even if only the best case scenario actually happens. For On the Media, this is John Solomon. [TAPE PLAYS] [SPRIGHTLY MUSIC]
CHORUS: [SINGING] THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM-- THE BROADCASTS OF YOUR AREA, IN VOLUNTARY COOPERATION WITH THE FCC--
WOMAN: [FUNNY VOICE] And other authorities!
CHORUS: --HAVE DEVELOPED THIS SYSTEM TO KEEP YOU INFORMED--
MALE CHORUS: [TALK-SINGING] IN THE EVENT OF AN EMERGENCY--
CHORUS: IF THIS HAD BEEN AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY--
MALE CHORUS: YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN INSTRUCTED WHERE TO TUNE IN YOUR AREA--
CHORUS: -- FOR NEWS AND OFFICIAL INFORMATION. THIS CONCLUDES THIS TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, to use or not to use images of terror. Also, outrage in the American press, but in the Arab media -- not so much.