Madness hits mailrooms

Anthrax anxiety grows as White House targeted

For an edgy Hollywood and an anxious nation, the mail must not go through — not anymore. Media companies have shut down mailrooms and publicists have stopped delivering fan mail.

With anthrax found in a White House mail screening facility on Tuesday and separately confirmed as the cause of death for two D.C. postal workers, it is now clear that the nation is under bioterror attack.

At a Washington new conference President Bush said “I don’t have anthrax.” He declined to say whether he had taken a nasal swab test, but stressed that no traces of anthrax had been found at the White House itself.

It had to be chilling to Hollywood when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was little doubt that the person or persons behind the anthrax attacks went after two “high-impact” crowds — news net anchors and Washington solons.

The revelation about the White House came one day after studio and TV execs held a private meeting with Calif. Gov. Gray Davis, the FBI and other high-level law enforcement officials about developing a sound plan of action in the event that Hollywood is hit. The meeting, held in Beverly Hills, was called by Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti, who declined comment on the meeting itself.

News divisions at ABC, CBS and NBC — the first to receive anthrax-laced mail, along with Capitol Hill — all counted their blessings that no one came down with the more serious form of anthrax that has now claimed the lives of two postal workers stationed in Washington, as well as a photo editor for the Boca Raton, Fla., supermarket tabloid the Sun.

In Hollywood, public relations firms and talent agents are rerouting or setting aside thousands of pieces of fan mail. Much of it is being sent to professional fan mail services, many of which were oversubscribed and frazzled on a good day.

“Some of our clients were using fan mail services,” said Tracy Shaffer, a publicist at prasiery PMK/HBH, “but before the Florida incident, if they didn’t, it probably would get sent on to their assistant or their home. That’s over now. But unfortunately, now that we’ve received it, we’re wondering, Now what?

Meanwhile, some mail services are complaining of being overwhelmed with a backlog of mail that concerned publicists had set aside, unsure of how to safely dispose of it.

“We’re all wearing gloves,” said one worker at a professional fan mail service who declined to be identified. She added: “We have to screen everything, and you start to imagine things, — that your hands are itching, and so on. It’s scary, but we need the money, so frankly there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Thousands of unsolicited letters pour in to celebrities every week, with many houses handling 10,000 units of mail in a given week. Although most are simple declarations of admiration, precautions have long been taken with such mail, which has included checking suspicious letters and packages.

Officials said a mail sorting machine at Bolling Air Force Base — where White House mail is pored over and submitted to security screenings — had tested positive for anthrax spores Monday morning. As of last evening, investigators still hadn’t identified the piece of anthrax-laced mail which apparently contaminated the sorter.

The White House raised the possibility that the piece of mail itself might have not contained anthrax, but rather might have been contaminated at the postal center where all mail coming into Washington D.C. is sorted.

Both Bush and Fleischer stressed that the White House tested clean.

“We’re making sure that the West Wing at the White House is safe. I’m confident when I come to work tomorrow, I’ll be safe,” Bush said.

Nevertheless, mail employees at the White House, along with employees at Bolling, were being tested for exposure. Meanwhile, CBS News and ABC News are still undergoing environmental cleanups after their own anthrax scares. On Tuesday, traces of anthrax were found in the office of “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather. Rather’s assistant tested positive last week for cutaneous anthrax and is recovering. CBS is still waiting for the final results of the environmental tests done at the CBS Broadcast Center.

ABC News is waiting for the completion of the environmental sample and nasal swab results that were taken after a 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer presumably contracted anthrax at the net’s Gotham headquarters. All results that have come in so far have been negative.

After the assistant to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw tested positive for cutaneous anthrax, environmental tests were taken and employees were tested. They, too, all came back negative.

The New York Times shuttered its mailroom Tuesday after a staffer opened an envelope containing a suspicious white powdery substance.

(Paula Bernstein in New York contributed to this report.)

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