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TomPaine: All Anthrax, All The Time
By TomPaine

1/1/1999 1:58 am Fri


And What's Missing From the Coverage

The Editors collaborated on this story.

CBS anchorman Dan Rather went on CNN last week and bragged that he's not taking Cipro, but a competing network's anchorman is taking the anthrax antibiotic. That's no profile in courage. It's not something the public needs to know, nor does it help them understand anything about war or terrorism or the day's news. It's not even journalism. The moment showed the media's worst tendency -- covering itself as if it were the news.

This dismal bit of daytime television wouldn't even be worth writing about if it were the exception. But sadly, it's not. Many of the biggest players in the national news media have done a splendid job of placing themselves in the center of the war story. Now all you need to do to become a terrorism war correspondent is open the mail -- or watch your assistant open it. So much for combat.

What the anthrax battle-scared network anchors are experiencing pales in contrast to what happened to Wall Street Journal staffers when their New York bureau was destroyed by falling World Trade Center debris. That story was covered, appropriately, and then the reporters got back to work.

Dan Rather discussing his brush with anthrax would seem silly and self-indulgent if our country weren't at war. It might be useful if Mr. Rather, or his fellow Fourth Estate targets in this sad chapter, spent just a little more time asking higher-ups why their news organizations are not going outside the censorship dictates of the Pentagon and the Taliban to bring the public more robust, subtle coverage.

All anthrax all the time isn't in-depth reporting, it's breathless; too little news filling too much airtime.

Ladies and gentlemen in the press corps, let's cover the war in all of its complexity. Let's start by not overreacting and contributing to a climate of fear. Yes, someone is sending anthrax through the mail, and that is a big, serious story. But if CBS or Congress has to shut down because of anthrax threats, let's offer some perspective. All anthrax all the time isn't in-depth reporting, it's breathless; too little news filling too much airtime.

Let's go after some under-explored aspects of the current war, such as proof of Osama bin Laden's guilt. We're told it exists, but we haven't seen and judged it for ourselves. What we know is largely circumstantial, guilt by association confirmed only by a knowing wink from officialdom. American bombs and bullets are flying in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean this line of questioning should stop.

The anthrax scare shows how much we don't know. Can a terror movement based in Afghani caves accurately manufacture anthrax particles? An expert interviewed by the CBC on October 17 suggested that the high-quality, 'high-tech' anthrax that landed in Senator Daschle's inbox didn't likely come from any cave lab. He said its purity and quality "suggests state involvement." Could this mean Afghanistan is getting bombs that would be better aimed elsewhere? Is Saddam quietly snickering while Osama gets the blame for everything? We don't know, but are American reporters even asking such questions?

Why not turn the camera on what the Pentagon officially calls "news management" -- the propaganda war? Reporters might profile the general who commands the public relations battalion -- who is he? How many troops does he command? Do his briefing room battle maps delineate domestic media markets as the war zone?

The techno-cool "smart bomb" shots the Pentagon feeds the networks might as well be reruns of Gulf War vintage -- that's how much they tell us about the current war. There is precious little coverage of what the bombs are doing to people on the ground in Afghanistan. Such television pictures are being shown in the Muslim world, but hardly here, and then only with MTV-like quick cuts. Let's have a good, hard look at the Grounds Zero of our own making.

It would take some real courage to cover these sectors of the war zone, some real creativity and innovation in the field and spine in the editorial boardrooms. That's what it takes to put the interest of the governed over the interest of the governors.

War has a way of separating the journalists from the media stars and the loud mouths, and the War on Terrorism will show who's who. 1003875546attacks_investigation_wx147.html

This is a photograph of the letter containing anthrax that was sent to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Reaching out to the public for help, the Justice Department released on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001, copies of three letters and the envelopes that contained anthrax that were sent to Daschle, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the editor of The New York Post. (AP Photo/FBI, HO)

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