BOB GARFIELD: Terrorists rely on publicity to maximize their terror, so it makes sense that they would target the networks -- and they did - sending Anthrax first to Tom Brokaw at NBC; then to ABC and then CBS News. The pathogenic letters arrived hard upon similarly infectious missives sent to the offices of The Sun and The National Enquirer tabloids resulting in the death of Sun photo Bob Stevens. More recently Anthrax has also been found at the New York Post. By targeting the media, the terrorists have generated some nervous news reporting. OTM's producer at large Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: Some time in late September a letter arrived in the offices of NBC News contaminated with a substance that proved to be Anthrax. On Friday, October 12th the man to whom the letter was addressed took to the airwaves. [NEWS THEME MUSIC]
TOM BROKAW: Good evening. Tonight we find ourselves in the unusual and unhappy position of reporting on one of our beloved colleagues, a member of my personal staff who has contracted a cutaneous Anthrax infection - that's an infection of the skin that is....
MIKE PESCA: Thus began one of the strangest chapters in the history of broadcasting. The news becoming the news is nothing new, but usually the process flows through the channels of publicists and chat show bookers. This was different. Over the last week, the headquarters of the major broadcast networks each became crime scenes and employees or their relatives became victims. That's how NBC reporter David Bloom came to report back to Tom Brokaw the contents of Brokaw's own mail.
DAVID BLOOM: Tom, tonight law enforcement sources tell NBC News that while there was no return address on that suspicious envelope dated September 25th, it did have a postmark from St. Petersburg, Florida.
ANDREW TYNDAL: The reports on NBC on the day that the infection was announced were like looking into a hall of mirrors.
MIKE PESCA: Andrew Tyndal [sp?] monitors and analyzes network news for a newsletter called the Tyndal Report. The funhouse effect did not distract him from the fact that Bloom's report emphasized the wrong letter. Investigators had been focusing on an envelope with a St. Petersburg postmark when in fact the Anthrax actually came in a letter postmarked Trenton. To Tyndal, this suggested that NBC relied on an unnamed outside source. There was nothing to indicate that they had obtained confirmation from within their own security staff and management.
ANDREW TYNDAL: When the information you get from blind investigative sources turns out to be wrong and you have your own internal resources to corroborate, the NBC reporter was not using that piece of extra information that the people at - in the offices at NBC News would have had or, or maybe they should have had or could have had.
MIKE PESCA: Of course no NBC employee may have noted the postmark before turning it over to the authorities, but even if NBC did know, independently corroborating the postmark would only have been possible if the network had traded on its status as a crime scene. Former president of NBC news Reuven Frank [sp?] says it would be improper for NBC to use access it wouldn't have if it were reporting on any prominent U.S. corporation besides NBC.
REUVEN FRANK: In a situation like this, a public health situation, a news organization should act as a company rather than as a news organization. Whatever happens it should be publicly announced. Then all the news organizations should use it together.
MIKE PESCA: This is clearly the tack that all the networks are taking. The president of ABC News announced the Anthrax in their office in a press conference that wasn't even carried live on ABC. Rick Kaplan is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Until last year he was the president of CNN. He says that even when they are the news, news organizations should be news organizations.
RICK KAPLAN: It is much more sensitive when you're reporting on yourself than when you're reporting on someone else, but does that mean you drop it? I don't think so. I think it means you are especially vigilant about telling people completely what your sourcing is, what the details are. I think it's just a matter of just saying look, you know, this is a news story. We're going to cover it. Same rules apply. Let's just get it right.
DAN ABRAMS: It's unquestionably a unique position to be in where we are reporting on Anthrax cases throughout the nation and many of us are taking cipro.
MIKE PESCA: Dan Abrams has been covering the Anthrax story primarily for MSNBC. He's on cipro because he also works out of NBC's Rockefeller Center offices. He's not bothered that certain details like the name of Tom Brokaw's infected assistant appeared in the newspapers before NBC itself reported the information.
DAN ABRAMS: There's no question that some of my bosses knew more and know more about this Anthrax scare at NBC than I do. There's almost I think been a kind of Chinese wall erected. I don't know a whole lot more than what I'm reporting. Sure, did I know the name of the woman initially? Yeah. Did we report it? No. There have been other cases w-- many other cases where I've known the name of a particular victim in a case and as a matter of policy we decided not to report it.
MIKE PESCA: To Abrams the real challenge, one he thinks NBC is handling well, is to emphasize that his network is but part of a larger story. This was made apparent throughout the week as Anthrax was detected in national and state government offices as well as in the offices of all network newscasts. CBS took the unusual step of offering their evening news anchor Dan Rather as spokesman during the news conference discussing their own case of Anthrax.
DAN RATHER: Forgive us if you must but, you know, we're in the news business. And I'm trying to report this as straight up as I would any other story.
MIKE PESCA: Which of course is all but impossible because this isn't any other story, especially if you're acting like a company and not a news organization. For On the Media I'm Mike Pesca.