Studios on high alert amid anthrax threats

Fear sweeps media biz as danger materializes

Hollywood studios, network offices and media outlets are on high alert today, as the industry grows increasingly concerned that it is under biological attack.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Sunday blamed “terrorists” for mailing Anthrax to U.S. businesses in Florida, New York and Nevada and said that some perpetrators of the Sept. 11 hijack attacks were still in this country.

Threats of Anthrax-tinted mail at NBC’s New York headquarters and the New York Times prompted several studios to suspend mail delivery Friday and mail distribution is expected to be further disrupted today as studios continue to assess the threat of a bioterrorist attack.

Sony mounted an investigation Friday into a possible Anthrax attack after an employee at the studio opened a package containing a white powder, but it appears to have been a false alarm.

“We called the fire department,” Sony spokesperson Susan Tick said. “But they could find no white powdered substances. The man had tests as a precautionary measure.”

Part of NBC’s Burbank headquarters was closed Friday after a suspicious package was delivered to the Peacock net.

“A substance that was contained in the package has been tested by Burbank Hazmat and the Los Angeles County Health Dept.,” an NBC spokeswoman said. The tests proved negative, but six employees are being tested to ensure nothing further is amiss.

Mail distribution was also suspended temporarily at Warner Bros. and Disney on Friday, but mail at several studios had undergone heightened scrutiny well before the latest bioterrorist scare. Universal mail handlers underwent training from bomb and chemical warfare specialists after Sept. 11. And Warner Bros. already has a standing policy to X-ray some packages.

But Warner Bros. mail personnel will also wear gloves and masks beginning today and will receive extra training to help them discern suspect parcels.

“We’re taking extra precautionary measures, although we have no information of a specific threat,” a Warner Bros. spokesman said.

Concerned that they would be the next target, newspapers, nets, publishing companies and studios — including CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, CNN, Random House, the New York Times, Newsweek and the Associated Press — shuttered their mailrooms Friday. A number of companies will keep their mailrooms closed until further notice as they try to develop ways to sort mail to detect any dangerous deliveries.

After Tom Brokaw’s longtime personal assistant tested positive for anthrax Friday at the Peacock’s Gotham headquarters, fear spread throughout New York’s media community.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Sunday that three people who handled an anthrax-tainted letter had been found to have traces of the disease and a Florida tabloid publisher said five additional employees had been exposed.

U.S. officials emphasized that of those exposed, only two had actually contracted anthrax. One of those two died of the disease on Oct. 5. With the discovery of a letter containing anthrax in Nevada, three states are now affected by the disease.

NBC prexy Andrew Lack said at a press conference Friday that the infected woman tested positive for cutaneous anthrax — which is contracted through the skin — after handling “suspicious” mail. The two letters in question were addressed to “Nightly News” anchor Brokaw.

“Today we find ourselves in the unusual and unhappy position of reporting on one of our beloved colleagues, a member of my own staff,” Brokaw said during the opening of Friday’s “Nightly News.”

Separately, Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who is an expert in terrorism received an envelope Friday that contained a powdery white substance. te New York Police Dept. was contacted and is conducting an investigation. Employees were moved from the newsroom to other floors in the building while testing was done.

The air in the newsroom was tested for radioactive and chemical substances but none were found. The substance, which “smelled like talcum powder,” according to a New York Times statement, tested negative for anthrax.

Employees at the BBC, which rents office space from Reuters in Times Square around the corner from the New York Times, were informed Friday that a chemical and biological weapons expert from the U.K. would be dispatched to the States in short order.

As a precaution, Giuliani said tests would be done at NBC offices in Rockefeller Center and that some areas would be closed. Any NBC employees who may have been exposed will be tested and given antibiotics in case they were infected.

“People should not overreact to this,” Giuliani said. “Much of this is being done to allay people’s fears.”

In a memo, Lack and NBC chair-CEO Bob Wright assured the net’s employees that “we have no reason to believe that this particular incident has spread beyond this individual employee.”

The cutaneous anthrax infection is not the same respiratory anthrax that was reported at the American Media building in South Florida.

In Washington, President Bush was notified of the NBC anthrax case in the early morning hours Friday. Speaking publicly a few hours later, Bush said while it is cause for concern, Americans must go about the business of living. At a separate press conference, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Thompson said the country’s public health system is on heightened alert, and teams of experts have been dispatched to Peacock headquarters. The FBI also has opened a criminal investigation.

(Josef Adalian in Los Angeles, Pamela McClintock in Washington, D.C., and Charles Lyons in New York contributed to this report.)

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