Don't bother to write
From fan mail to press releases, letters to networks are being trashed in the wake of anthrax contamination
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/21/2001 8:00:00 PM
Don't bother to send fan mail to MSNBC newsies like dyed-in-the-wool anchor Brian Williams or the more recently dyed Ashleigh Banfield. The letter will end up in a truck trailer next to a loading dock in Secaucus, N.J.
Because that's pretty much where most of MSNBC's mail was winding up last week, dumped unopened into giant piles out back behind its studios in a New York suburb. Pretty much the same thing is happening to Bill O'Reilly's mail at Fox News Channel. And mail now sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw isn't making it into 30 Rock at all anymore.
Relief from the daily deluge of viewer mail—and unwanted press releases—was about the only thing gratifying TV news staffers last week as the networks were gripped by fear over anthrax and by newly tightened security procedures.
Cases popped up that were linked to staffers at all three major broadcast networks. The latest was Claire Fletcher, an assistant to CBS anchor Dan Rather, whose two-week-old "mosquito bite" on her cheek turned out to be an anthrax infection, it was revealed on Oct. 18. She had it checked after news broke Oct. 12 that an assistant to NBC's Tom Brokaw was diagnosed with anthrax after opening an envelope that dumped a powder onto her chest.
The 7-month-old son of an ABC producer was diagnosed with skin anthrax days after being taken to World News Tonight for a birthday party, a visit that included a stop in Peter Jennings's office.
The media were not alone—as an anthrax-laced letter to Senate President Tom Daschle demonstrated. But it seems clear that the news anchors have become targets. The suspect NBC letter was addressed to Brokaw personally, seemingly written by a child. Federal and local investigators assume that anthrax spores entered the other anchors' offices the same way, although ABC and CBS staffers don't recall any suspect mail.
Nevertheless, "the pattern here appears to be essentially identical to the pattern in the other two news organizations, and by all intents and purposes, happened some time in late September," said Stephen M. Ostroff, chief epidemiologist at the National Center for Infectious Diseases and the lead federal public-health investigator on the anthrax cases in New York.
Who is targeting media and political leaders is not clear. Investigators have not traced letters to their sources or discovered much evidence supporting the most obvious leap—that the mailings are a follow-up by the terrorists who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks.
Newsroom vibes differed. CNN staffers reported that no one seemed to be panicking. "The tension is less than you might think," said CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who used to work at ABC News. "It's a galvanizing moment." But Fox News' Washington bureau was cleared out briefly after a staffer panicked over construction dust that had fallen from the ceiling.
Anxiety was not limited to TV news operations. At the headquarters of Viacom, owner of CBS and MTV, the once-loose checkpoints abruptly tightened with I.D. required to even enter the building. Senior media executives are suddenly anxious about their mail as well. "I see the kind of strange mail my boss gets," said a senior vice president on one network about her CEO.
However, as health officials get experience with the anthrax-by-mail outbreaks, their response is becoming less dramatic.
After a photo editor at National Enquirer publisher American Media was diagnosed with the most severe form of anthrax, respiratory, the entire building was quarantined and all employees tested. At NBC, the third floor where the Nightly News staff worked was shut down and 1,304 employees tested, taking a Q-tip up the nose to look for signs of inhaled spores. But, of the 1,100 tests analyzed by press time, so far all have been negative. "The direction could not be more encouraging," Andrew Lack, NBC News president, said in an e-mail message to employees.
At ABC, environmental samples were taken from 74 locations, with 59 coming back negative so far.
At CBS, white-suited and hooded techs cordoned off work areas as they wiped surfaces for later study, but there was no mass quarantine or testing. Since the outbreaks in network offices are not obviously widespread, health officials are playing down risks. About 200 CBS staffers had been interviewed by Friday morning, but a relatively small number are getting tested. Even Rather's assistant—who is on antibiotics—was at her desk all last week.
"Our biggest problem is not anthrax," Rather said. "Our biggest problem is fear." He added that he did not plan to be tested nor was he stocking up on Cipro.
A producer at one network said that the anthrax outbreaks have actually relieved his anxiety.
"If this is the best they've got, then I'm not so worried about the biological stuff," the producer said. "You'd be much more worried if 38 employees were wiped out. Then you'd figure there was more and bigger to come."
One emerging issue is how the anthrax outbreaks will affect journalists' objectivity. American journalists are not accustomed to being targets in a conflict, now they're a secretary away from bio-attacks.
It's one thing to declare, as Rather does, that one is "a patriotic journalist" when it comes to bombing Afghanistan. But all sorts of related issues are more fuzzy, such as restrictions that could threaten civil liberties, the status of Arab suspects being imprisoned in the U.S. without being charged, and the amount of money being budgeted for everything from rebuilding lower Manhattan to bailing out the insurance industry.
Brokaw, for example, is clearly having difficulty maintaining the usual journalistic distance, openly expressing his anger over the infection of his assistant. "There's going to be a psychological scarring," he said on NBC Dateline. "Let's be honest about that."
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