Misleading reports becoming an epidemic

Fiction competed with fact on Thursday as the anthrax threat consumed the media and political worlds, leading to misleading reports about who was suffering from the dangerous disease.

Also on Thursday, “ABC World News Tonight’s” Washington-based weekend anchor Carole Simpson, who was suspended after speaking out of turn about an anthrax investigation, apologized.

“My goal as a journalist is to always try to get it right. When any of us in this profession makes a mistake, it’s important to say so,” said Simpson.

Simpson wasn’t the only one correcting misperceptions. The day began with reports that a Capitol Hill journalist had been admitted to a Washington, D.C. hospital, presenting flu-like symptoms and possibly suffering from inhalation anthrax. The unidentified journalist had apparently been the vicinity of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office when an anthrax-laced letter addressed to the politico was opened on Oct. 15.

By late afternoon, however, public health officials presented no evidence that the journalist had inhalation anthrax, leading news orgs to drop the item. Definitive test results won’t come until today.

A mailroom employee for the State Department wasn’t so fortunate, however, with health officials saying the government worker appeared to be suffering from inhalation anthrax. It’s unclear how the off-site State Dept. mail facility became contaminated. And in New Jersey, another postal worker was being treated for anthrax.

Meanwhile, confusion erupted in New York City when Gotham Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that another NBC News staffer had contracted cutaneous anthrax after handling a letter sent to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw.

NBC prexy and chief operating officer Andrew Lack quickly set the record straight, telling staffers, “This is old news.”

Since the employee had direct contact with the “suspicious” letter, she underwent a series of tests, which only now came back as being “possibly positive,” Lack said.

“That was enough to change her status to ‘being suspected of having cutaneous anthrax,’ ” said Lack, who added, “Do not be concerned that there is some new case here that has just developed. The person involved is fine, had been treated immediately and successfully, and is back at work.”

Jumping into the anthrax debate, the FCC temporarily lifted a rule that broadcasters keep all mail on file. The National Association of Broadcasters had made the request.

“The circumstances now prevailing are extraordinary, involving as they do, a biological attack of as yet uncertain dimensions but certainly directed, in part, against United States media outlets. We are granting the waiver in order to minimize any public health threat to station personnel,” the FCC said in its order.

As for Simpson’s apology, she said “On October 16 at a luncheon, I shared some information with the audience that I believed to be accurate about a suspicious letter that had been received at our Washington bureau. It turned out that the information about the postmark of that letter was incorrect and I regret the mistake.”

Simpson was referring to a press luncheon in New York the day after ABC News announced that a producer’s baby had been diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax. At the International Women’s Media Foundation event, Simpson said that her colleague “This Week” co-host Cokie Roberts had received a suspicious letter postmarked Trenton, NJ., the suspected site of anthrax-laced letters sent to other media orgs and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

ABC had, in fact, been investigating a suspicious letter sent to its Washington bureau, but it did not originate from Trenton and turned out to be harmless.

Simpson also divulged identifying information about the baby that that the infant’s mother had intended to keep out of the media.

Simpson’s 2-week paid suspension will end on Nov. 4.

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