Suspicion that TV anchors are being targeted by terrorists turned into cold reality Thursday as the third network in one week was hit by anthrax, with an assistant to CBS’ Dan Rather testing positive for the disease.
The Eye net anchor assured the nation there was no reason to panic Thursday, but the news only added to the shock settling over the media biz since Oct. 12, when NBC announced that an aide to Peacock journalist Tom Brokaw had come down with anthrax after opening a piece of hate mail.
Late Monday, a 7-month-old, the child of an ABC News producer, tested positive for the disease after visiting the newsroom late last month.
Federal officials say there is little doubt that the anthrax hits are related, with FBI director Robert Mueller offering a $1 million reward and helping with a special edition of “America’s Most Wanted” to drum up information.
The hit on the networks — and Capitol Hill, where more than 30 staffers have tested positive for anthrax exposure — have rocked two of America’s more steely institutions. Newsies have repeatedly said the show must go on, yet the stress is apparent on their faces
The news staffers and the baby all contracted skin, or cutaneous, anthrax, considered highly treatable.
“Our biggest problem today is not anthrax. Our biggest problem is fear,” Rather said at a press conference. The “CBS Evening News” anchor said he had not been tested for anthrax and has no plans to do so.
“We pride ourselves on being professional. We are resolute. We will not flinch. We will not bend. We will not swerve. We will put out a first-class evening newscast this evening.”
Officials said the Eye staffer had come down with the same form of anthrax that an NBC employee contracted after handling a letter addressed to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.
The Eye employee is being treated with antibiotics, according to CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward.
“She is expected to make a full recovery; in fact, she feels fine,” he said in a statement.
Rather said the staffer hasn’t missed a day’s work because of the illness.
Gotham newsies now share an unusual bond with Washington pols — anthrax. The 31 Senate staffers that tested positive for exposure were believed to have been in the vicinity of a threatening letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
The Daschle letter was similar in handwriting to one addressed to Brokaw, and bore the same Trenton, N.J., postmark. (Also on Thursday, officials said a postal worker in Trenton had tested positive for anthrax.)
The Centers for Disease Control has determined that the anthrax sent to NBC is from the same strain sent to tabloid publisher American Media in Florida, where a photo editor died after inhaling large amounts of anthrax spores.
“It appears as if there are some similarities between some of the most serious of the offenses that indicates that they might be… a part of a unified organized effort, an effort either by a single individual or else an effort conducted in concert with someone else,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said in an interview on MSNBC Thursday.
But he said authorities could not say that the anthrax outbreak was definitely the work of the network that carried out the suicide-hijacks attacks on Sept. 11.
At CBS News, the New York City Health Dept. and other investigators will interview employees who work in the same vicinity as the sick worker to determine whether or not they should be tested. No other employees are taking antibiotics and no parts of the building have been closed.
“We have been informed by (the) New York City health commissioner that it is safe to continue working while this investigation gets under way,” Heyward said.
Gotham Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that Rather’s assistant reported her symptoms to authorities Oct. 12 after hearing word that Brokaw’s assistant had contracted anthrax.
Unlike at NBC, where officials have located the source of the anthrax — a letter addressed to Tom Brokaw — it’s still unclear how the 7-month-old who had visited ABC and how Rather’s assistant at CBS contracted the disease. Because Rather’s assistant handles his mail, investigators are going under the assumption that the anthrax was delivered in an envelope.
Word of the ABC News anthrax attack came a day after New York Gov. George Pataki relocated his staff after traces of anthrax were found at his Gotham office. Pataki is taking antibiotics as a precaution but he does not plan to get tested.
‘We can’t overreact’
“This is a war of terror aimed at our minds and aimed at our way of life, and that’s why we can’t overreact,” Pataki said on NBC News’ “Today” on Thursday morning.
Meanwhile, health officials said that tests on 850 NBC employees have come back negative. ABC News said that preliminary results show that 90% of environmental tests taken at the net’s headquarters have come back negative.
“I was informed this morning by the governor that the vast majority of the environmental samples taken from our building had been tested … and that the results were negative,” ABC News prexy David Westin said in a memo to staffers Thursday. As of Wednesday night, nasal swab testing had been done on 188 people.
“Going forward, we should be able to handle about 175 people a day,” said Westin, who added that if any employee wants to be tested, they will have that option.
Since it appears that network news anchors are being targeted, ABC News said they will continue to take extra precautions for the mail throughout the net, including anything addressed to “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings. After the news that the 7-month-old had contracted anthrax, Jennings was tested. Results are not yet in; he is not taking antibiotics.