Anthrax story infects normally calm news anchor

Not long ago — just days, actually — TV anchors were institutions of invincibility. Bombs might be falling all around, but viewers could always count on Dan, Peter and Tom to look calm, cool and collected as they interviewed the enemy.

But when the enemy came calling this time, it didn’t want an interview; the enemy wanted to use the anchors to foment panic in the population at large.

It didn’t quite work. In sending anthrax-laced letters to CBS, NBC, and ABC, the terrorists — be they domestic crazies or foreign agents — did, however, shake up the news operations and got the widest possible media exposure among an already jittery public.

Newspapers also have become targets, with the New York Post announcing on Oct. 19 that one of its employees has also tested positive for anthrax.

The attacks put the media in the bizarre position of reporting on themselves, with anchors quickly making the press rounds.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw was visibly shaken and glassy-eyed when appearing as a guest on “Dateline.” ABC’s Peter Jennings turned to his net’s “20/20” to give his personal take on the anthrax threat. “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather’s hourlong appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” was billed as an exclusive.

“It’s always awkward when you’re in the news. This is particularly awkward and uncomfortable because it’s so serious,” Rather confessed to King.

Awkward, maybe, but for the regular American looking to network anchors for reassurance, it was downright unnerving to see the normally unflappable newsies turning emotional.

Especially considering the chaos on Capitol Hill, where 31 staffers tested positive for anthrax exposure after a letter similar to the one sent to Brokaw was opened Oct. 15 in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

The House of Representatives shut down, while the Senate remained open only in principle, with all office buildings on the Hill being swept.

In such unprecedented circumstances, it was understandable why newsies played the story to the hilt. Anchors tried to walk a fine line by not capitalizing on suddenly finding themselves in the center of the story, right along with the leaders they usually cover.

Ironically, TV newsies have paid little attention to supermarket tabloid-publisher American Media, which took the first, and most serious anthrax hit. A photo editor for one of its tabloids, the Sun, died of inhalation anthrax, with another staffer testing positive for the same strain. American Media, based in Florida, also puts out the National Enquirer.

The still-unfolding drama began on Oct. 12, when the Peacock announced that an aide to Brokaw came down with a skin form of anthrax after opening a piece of hate mail addressed to her boss.

On Oct. 15, ABC News topper David Westin announced that the baby of a news producer had come down with cutaneous anthrax after visiting the Alphabet newsroom.

By the time CBS told the world it too had been targeted, it almost seemed logical, in a sick sort of way. The drill had become routine — bring out top execs, hold a press conference, sweep the building, set up a testing station.

“I’m trying to report this as straight up as any other story,” Rather said at a Oct. 18 press conference in which reporters grilled the veteran anchor.

“Our biggest problem today is not anthrax. Our biggest problem is fear,” the “CBS Evening News” anchor said.

During his Oct. 12 appearance on “Dateline,” an outraged Brokaw teared up while talking about how his assistant was infected with the anthrax bacterium.

ABC News prexy Westin got high marks for the steady tenor of his Oct. 15 announcement about the infected infant. Westin urged the media not to jump to any conclusions.

“We don’t know what the motives of these people are. It’s not that constructive for those in the media to be speculating about that,” he said.

It’s a strange world order when TV viewers clamor to learn everything there is to know about nasal swabs and the antibiotic Cipro.

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