Widespread Spores of Confused Drama

By Harper, Jennifer | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 24, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Widespread Spores of Confused Drama

Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Byline: Jennifer Harper

Anthrax, Part II is an even bigger media production than last week's frantic celebration of spores and nasal swabs. Sequels often rely on dramatic derivations of old material to lure in an audience, and this week's coverage is no exception.

Bioterrorism has become the vehicle for alarmist drama, cliffhanger mystery, junk science, conspiracy theories, fingerpointing and confusion amid scattered attempts at straightforward journalism.

Overzealous descriptions abound. "The anthrax toll escalated dramatically, stunning health officials," stated the Boston Herald. New Anthrax deaths were a "chilling sign that authorities have yet to contain the nation's bioterror threat," proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle. NBC news dubbed the cases "a public health nightmare."

CBS' Dan Rather, meanwhile, coined the phrase "anthrax assassination attempt," while on ABC, Peter Jennings waxed poetic: "Before the post office, the Pony Express which delivered the mail advertised for workers willing to risk death daily. Today the post office confronts the threat of biological terror."

In some media circles, anthrax became a disturbing saga of the haves and have-nots. "Are you not at all bothered that white-collar workers on Capitol Hill were quickly tested while blue-collar workers associated with the post office were being told they had nothing to worry about?" CBS asked D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism school and think tank, approves of the heavy coverage as long as journalists stay credible.

When it comes to coverage of bioterrorism," he noted, "journalists need to come as close to the saturation point as possible without changing the color of the solution.

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