BOB GARFIELD: Despite repeated warnings from Bush administration officials that terrorists could strike the United States on high profile dates this summer including this 4th of July weekend, most Americans have made more preparations for their barbecues than for a potential attack. In the first of a two-part series on civil readiness, OTM's John Solomon looks at how the administration is doing in its effort to market individual preparedness to the public and the press before another domestic terror attack.
JOHN SOLOMON: Recent polls indicate that a majority of U.S. citizens expect the nation to be attacked by terrorists soon, yet only a minority has followed the government's instructions to prepare for such an event. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently acknowledged an information gap between the government and its citizens when it comes to civil defense. That, despite the department's Ready.Gov awareness campaign which was launched last February. [CLIP FROM PSA PLAYS]
TOM RIDGE: Every family in America should prepare itself for a terrorist attack.
JOHN SOLOMON: The campaign includes a series of Ad Council PSAs featuring Secretary Ridge and emergency workers which promote the Ready.Gov website.
TOM RIDGE: Terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be afraid, or we can be ready.
JOHN SOLOMON: The initial objective has been to convince people to assemble an emergency supply kit, develop a family communications plan, and generally become more informed about disaster preparedness. Department officials say Ready.Gov has already had a considerable impact. In one year, the percentage of Americans who have done something to prepare went from 25 to 33 percent. The Ad Council calls Ready.Gov one of its most successful launches ever, noting that PSA campaigns usually take years to produce significant results. Safety belt compliance, for example, took 20 years to move from 21 to 80 percent. But, since most Americans don't expect terrorists to wait 20 years to strike, why are so many waiting to prepare?
SUSAN NEELY: I'll respond to your question as a working mom.
JOHN SOLOMON: Susan Neely is the Homeland Security Department's assistant secretary for public affairs.
SUSAN NEELY: You know, we've got a lot on our plate, particularly those of us who are parents, so I need a big, strong push to get me out there as a, an individual mom who's got two kids and a job and lots of things to do.
JOHN SOLOMON: To provide a stronger push, Secretary Ridge has outsourced part of the readiness effort to America Prepared, a new non-profit group under the leadership of Steven Brill. It includes an unlikely assemblage of high profile media figures. They span the political spectrum from Fahrenheit 9/11 producer Harvey Weinstein to Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. Last year, after Brill's book on homeland security was published, he suggested to Ridge that the Ready campaign could use some private sector adrenalin. "Okay," the secretary agreed, "supply some." [CLIP FROM PSA] GIRL IN SCHOOLYARD: Batteries. A first aid kit. Enough water for three days...
JOHN SOLOMON: One of the first America Prepared PSAs features a young girl on monkey bars uttering some unexpected playground lingo. GIRL IN SCHOOLYARD: ...transistor radio. A whistle. A dust mask. A plan.
JOHN SOLOMON: By using kids to deliver the message, Brill hopes to make it socially unacceptable for adults to be too busy for civil defense. STEVEN BRILL: The purpose of that ad, as with many of our others, is to capture people's attention, but to get them to understand that this is simple stuff -- it's the kind of thing that you can do without upsetting your life, without, you know, changing the way you live.
JOHN SOLOMON: However, focus groups said they needed not only the information, but also some practical help in putting it all together. So America Prepared created its own "Ready" emergency kit, complete with, yes, a roll of duct tape -- and got Wal-Mart to stock them. The group will concentrate most of its activities around September which it says the Congress will declare National Preparedness Month. Brill has convinced a number of news organizations to do stories on readiness at that time. Secretary Ridge initially objected to September for fear it would be viewed as a political stunt, but Brill insisted that it was important to use the opening of schools to highlight family readiness planning and to take advantage of publicity tied to the anniversary of 9/11. Thus far, though media companies have donated more than 250 million in free ad time to Ready.Gov, they have provided very little news coverage of civil defense. Homeland Security's Susan Neely.
SUSAN NEELY: It would help to have more straightforward media attention on not only the importance of emergency preparedness, but that it does make a difference, and if they could pay just a little bit more attention to highlighting the importance of emergency preparedness as a public service or as also part of the public information effort, I think would be very helpful.
JOHN SOLOMON: Symbolically, the day Ready.Gov launched, CNN interrupted an interview with a civil defense expert to go to a live helicopter shot of the attempted rescue of a dog in a river. The lack of press coverage may partly be the result of the Bush administration's reluctance to talk more specifically about the biological, chemical or radiological terror threats and what the public should do in the event of a major attack. It's a missed opportunity, according to Steven Brill. STEVEN BRILL: The way to educate people that, you know, a dirty bomb sounds a lot worse than it is; that most people would think, my God, it's a nuclear bomb - and you know, we're all wiped out. The way to calm people down about that and educate them about that is not a half-hour after it happens with a hurried speech from the Oval Office. The way to do that is to do that in advance.
JOHN SOLOMON: Homeland Security officials say they are trying to walk the fine line between informing people without alarming them or providing a road map for terrorists. And they point out that the Ready.Gov site provides guidance on various terror scenarios. But even there, too much caution may be confusing to the public. Take Ready.Gov's disclaimer, quote, "We are not responsible if information that we make available on this site is not accurate, complete or current. The materials on this site are provided for general information only, and any reliance upon the material found on this site will be at your own risk." The government's ambivalence about civil defense information became evident to journalist Richard Preston when he began reporting a non-fiction book on bio-terrorism. The author of the best-selling The Hot Zone says that federal health and law enforcement officials encouraged him to write about the subject to sensitize the public to a looming threat, but almost none of them were willing to speak to him for attribution.
JOHN SOLOMON: And so, instead, I decided to turn it into fiction, and then [LAUGHS] when I began interviewing FBI people and so forth, they would say, "Oh, well, if you're writing a novel -- well let me tell you this, and let me tell you that." And you would get a tremendous amount of information, as long as the information is being poured into the pages of a novel.
JOHN SOLOMON: So maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising that many Americans still don't accept as real the idea that they need to prepare, and as a result, unfortunately, the only truly effective civil defense marketing tool may be the next attack. For On the Media, this is John Solomon.
BOB GARFIELD: Next week, the second part of the series on Homeland Security will examine the communications readiness of the government and the media in the event of a major terrorist strike. Up next, Michael Moore's shady dealings with the Carlyle Group. This is On the Media, from NPR.