U.S.: media coverage of chemical war discussions (NY Times)

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Headline: The Media: Talk of Chemical War Grows Louder on TV

Source: New York Times, 27 September 2001

URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/27/business/media/27TUBE.html

Should you buy a gas mask?" Diane Sawyer asked her viewers Tuesday on "Good Morning America" on ABC. "Should you get vaccines for your kids?" It was a startling question, asked in a report on biological weapons. But it was not unique.

Television has been flooded with the terrifying talk of biological and chemical warfare. Almost every news program has explored the issue in detail, never shying away from its most terrifying aspects, like this from the CNN correspondent David Ensor, on anthrax: "Agents made from it produce fever, stomach pain, then, a horrific death."

NBC News made biological terrorism the theme of the day on Tuesday, with reports on "Today," "Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," "Dateline NBC," and on the MSNBC and CNBC cable networks.

The possibility of a biological or chemical attack was raised on television almost immediately after the second plane struck the World Trade Center. But the talk grew much louder this week amid reports that one suspected hijacker had asked about crop-dusting planes and that some people arrested since the attack had obtained or tried to get special driver's licenses allowing them to transport hazardous materials.

Magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, have also explored the potential for biological and chemical attacks. But television, in which people speak off the cuff, sometimes bluntly and often with dramatic flair, gives the discussion an added intensity. Some people are questioning whether television is going too far in causing needless fear, contributing to the sort of national hysteria terrorists aim to cause. Others are saying the issue needs to be discussed, that the nation needs to be prepared to cope with a biological or chemical attack.

"It's sort of a vicious circle," said Jonathan B. Tucker, director of the program on chemical and biological weapons at the Washington office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The coverage gets people anxious, they start demanding information and that leads to more coverage, but I'm troubled when people start panicking to the point of buying gas masks and buying antibiotics."

The biggest danger, he said, is that in the absence of such an attack, people will become cynical and not heed warnings when and if the threat becomes more severe.

But Dr. Donald A. Henderson, the director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said the real dangers of an attack cannot be overstated, and that fear is the unfortunate byproduct of reporting that needs to be done to keep pressure on health officials. "What has been difficult, I think, is to convey to people what the magnitude of even a modest event would constitute," he said.

Network executives and producers said they felt an obligation to raise an issue already being discussed by politicians and government officials. "This is for real this is not Tom Clancy anymore," said John J. Stack, vice president for news gathering for the Fox News Channel. "It's a subject that our country has to face, and we feel we have to incorporate it into our reports."

Neal Shapiro, the NBC News president, said he did not assign segments on biological and chemical weapons without trepidation. Before Sept. 11, he said, "the subject did not get intense coverage" on NBC News because " a lot of us felt like it was a theoretical issue."

"Now," he said, "it seems in the same way that the World Trade Center incident has forced all of us to expand what we thought was possible, I think that's been reflected in our coverage, too, and that's why we want to give this a lot of attention."

He and other television news executives said they were trying to treat their reports on biological or chemical weapons responsibly, emphasizing the opinions of experts who say such agents are difficult to spread to large populations. (This is in keeping with their attempts to discount widespread rumors like speculation about a second attack on Sept. 22 though that could arguably have the accompanying effect of spreading them further.)

When "Good Morning America" began its coverage of biological and chemical weapons on Tuesday, Ms. Sawyer told parents that they might want to have their children leave the room. And while the program outlined the risks of biological and chemical weapons, and Osama bin Laden's presumed access to them, it also stressed that public water supplies were less vulnerable than some might think and that there does not seem to be any necessity to buy gas masks or vaccines and antibiotics.

Shelley Ross, the executive producer of "Good Morning America," said she had heard too much speculation over biological weapons in conversations to ignore it on the program. She said it was the program's duty to clear up misconceptions and that no matter how it was handled, some would be troubled. "This information is frightening to some and less frightening to others," she said. "We're talking about the invisible bogeyman."

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), September 27, 2001


Do people really believe they will see the chemical and especially the biological agent coming and have time to put on a mask?

-- Steve McClendon (ke6bjd@yahoo.com), September 27, 2001.

You'll notice certain names coming up often in discussions of bioterrorism and such. One of them is Dr. DA Henderson, as quoted in the article above.

"DA" as everyone calls him is a former head of the world smallpox eradication campaign of the 1960s and 1970s, among his many achievements. Lately he's at Hopkins as the director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. See


for some interesting articles and links to other resources at the Hopkins center.

DA is an "eminence grise" of public health. VERY much respected in my field; always one should think carefully when one thinks one disagrees with anything he says (in other words, he is not infallible, but if you think he's wrong in his opinion, you must stop and consider why...more likely YOU are in error.) There are few people about whom I would say this without hesitation.

Another name you may run across is Michael Osterholm. For a long time he was the highly respected State Epidemiologist for Minnesota; when he left the MN Dept of Health a year or two ago, he went into private work; I'm not sure what he's up to most recently. Again, VERY much respected as a public health worker -- another person worth listening to carefully. I haven't read his new book about BT issues, but I'm sure it can be found via Amazon or wherever. Mike is sometimes on the blunt side but that's not a fault, it's a virtue these days.

Just thought I'd share some background information for y'all.

-- Andre Weltman, M.D. (aweltman@state.pa.us), September 27, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ