Media in eye of storm as bioterror fear grows

The health threat facing the media biz from anthrax remains unclear, but there’s no question anxiety has reached epidemic levels.

By Tuesday the media had become a target of some brand of terrorism, with officials sweeping ABC News in New York, trying to determine how the baby of a producer was infected with anthrax.

Meanwhile, fear of another potential anthrax attack spread. A hazmat truck and several fire trucks shut down the street in front of the ABC News Washington bureau for a couple of hours Tuesday morning while suspicious letters — including a bulky letter addressed to ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts — were removed. Not long after, the Washington Post had a similar scare. There is no evidence any of the letters contained anthrax.

The scene also remained chaotic on Capitol Hill, where Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) received an anthrax missive Monday morning. Congressional insiders said that three Hollywood lobbyists who were on Capitol Hill around the same time were advised on Tuesday to take the anthrax test, as were hundreds of congressional staffers and other parties conducting business on the Hill. The test was a precautionary measure, and not a cause for alarm.

Richard Bates, lobbyist for the Walt Disney Co.; Matthew Gerson, lobbyist for Vivendi Universal; and Rick Lane, lobbyist for News Corp., just happened to be holding separate meetings in the Senate Hart office building, where Daschle’s office is.

It’s unnerving to say the least for Americans to turn on their televisions and see NBC anchor Tom Brokaw tearing up while talking about how his assistant was infected with anthrax after opening a hate letter intended for him.

“It could have been any of us. It could be me. It could have been Peter Jennings,” CNN anchor Aaron Brown said. “It does add a layer to this that makes things a little more complicated.”

In Washington, officials said the letter sent to Brokaw was virtually identical to the anthrax letter sent to Daschle, and that the handwriting on both envelopes appeared to match. The return addresses were also the same, ostensibly from a fourth grade class.

Ominously, authorities said the anthrax in both letters was a sophisticated, pure strain and likely the work of terrorists, whether linked to the Sept. 11 attacks or not.

Difficult position

In addition to shaking newsies emotionally, the anthrax attacks have also put the media in the bizarre position of reporting on themselves.

“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 open of “Nightly News” last week after his longtime assistant came down with anthrax. Brokaw was visibly shaken when he appeared as a guest later that night on NBC News’ “Dateline” and the next morning on “Today.”

Brokaw wasn’t the only newsie making the rounds. Judith Miller, The New York Times reporter who received a suspicious letter that tested negative for anthrax, appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Monday night to talk about her experience.

After reporting the anthrax developments for more than a week, ABC News suddenly became a part of the story Monday when a news producer’s son was diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax.

“Just because we’ve been affected, we don’t want to do more on the story,” Tom Nagorski, a senior producer for ABC News’ “World News Tonight” said. “If we err in some way, we’d rather be a little low-key about it.”

While anchors do their best to reassure viewers that the anthrax attacks seemed to be isolated incidents and that there is no need to hoard the antibiotic Cipro, the wall-to-wall coverage confirms the seriousness of the situation.

“We’ve talked a lot on the air about the balance between prudence and paranoia. All of the messages we get from the government are mixed and I assume ours are also,” said CNN’s Brown, who added that the news nets are not exploiting the story to boost ratings. “I don’t think we’re out there hyping something simply because it’s good for numbers.”

Some news execs suggest that whoever sent the contaminated letters knew that if they targeted the media, they’d be sure to get a lot of coverage.

“They didn’t just pick the media. They picked the U.S. Congress, which is another building full of people who are used to being on television and really know how to spread the word. Obviously, these people know what they’re doing,” “CBS Evening News” executive producer Jim Murphy said.

Still, newsies insist that they are not giving the anthrax story undue play simply because it has hit the media biz hard. “I think Daschle’s attack got just as much coverage as NBC’s or ABC’s,” MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson said. “And I believe we would be just as thorough and aggressive if it happened at a non-media office.”

At a press conference in Gotham Monday night, ABC News prexy David Westin urged the media not to jump to any conclusions about whether they are being targeted. “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.”

“World News Tonight” and “World News Now” continue to air from their usual studios, but the staff of “World News Tonight” had to be relocated to the ABCNews.com offices following Monday’s scare. The source of the anthrax hasn’t yet been located at ABC.

Safety checks

Aside from ABC News and NBC News, Gotham offices of several other major television and print news orgs–including CNN, Fox News, CBS, the Associated Press, the New York Daily News and the New York Post — are also being subjected to “environmental review” to make certain their premises are safe. Results won’t be in for a few days.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more