The term “bioterror” is no misnomer. To this moment, only four Americans have died from anthrax, yet the nation has reeled through spasms of hysteria and hype. Bioterror has shuttered vital government organs. It has driven wedges of class and race into America’s post-Sept. 11 unity. It has subjected our nation’s leaders (and District officials) to pointed questions about their basic competence.
Last weekend, pundits gleefully piled on in essaying government officials’ shortcomings and burying flaws in their bioterror coverage. Not so fast. Readers need look no further than the Washington Post for evidence that media outlets haven’t come to grips with anthrax yet, either.
Since Sept. 11, the Post has excelled in covering intelligence and foreign affairs (“The March of Folly,” 10/12). Sunday’s dissection of the comprehensive dragnet into which Arab-Americans and foreign nationals have been swept up is simply the latest exhibit.
The Post also wins points for prescience. It editorialized about the bioterrorism on Sept. 23, and it stirred an Oct. 2 feature on chemical/germ attacks into the mix. The paper also got off on the right foot on Oct. 9when anthrax first hit its front pagewith a useful Q&A box and a well-written story by Shankar Vedantam on lessons gleaned from a 1979 release of anthrax in Russia.
But things quickly went downhill from that moment. A close examination of the Post’s bioterror coverage since the story landed on its front page reveals a litany of overkill, sloppy definitions, gaps in coverage, and Capitol navel-gazing.
In short, that’s exactly what we have television for. Newspapers should be a sober antidote to the excesses of 24-hour-news-cycle immediacy, providing context and scope to counter the raw info onslaught. For instance, what made Vedantam’s Oct. 9 piece so useful was its attempt to quantifyto the best knowledge of scientistshow many inhaled anthrax spores were required to make a person sick. (Answer at that point: thousands.)
Rarely in the reams of the Post’s subsequent coveragemedia react pieces, government building closures, analysis of anthrax’s mysteriesdid the paper double back and ask such basic questions. When it finally began to do so again (the Oct. 30 edition seems to mark the beginning of such a “retrenchment”), the damage had been done, and the anthrax story had been a front-page mainstay for over two weeks.
In part, the Post’s bioterror-coverage failings boil down to simple language. Hot-button words such as “contaminated” or “exposed” or “tainted” have been tossed into print with little context. Many farms, for instance, can be said to be “contaminated” with naturally occurring anthrax. Dozens of people have been “exposed,” only to suffer no ill effects.
Throw these words in a headline”31 Exposed to Anthrax on Capitol Hill” (Oct. 18) or “White House Facility Tainted” (Oct. 24)and they take on added power.
The sloppiness of the Post’s own language freighted its attempts to explain the descriptive terms for anthrax tossed out by panicked congressmen with a rich irony. The headline for just such an Oct. 18 feature”Clarifying the Facts and Risks of Anthrax: Terms Used Loosely as Reports Multiply”reads almost as a self-indictment of sorts.
But the problems go deeper than simple language. At times, simple facts don’t match the words. For instance, when is something considered “confirmed”? The Post’s Oct. 14 front-page headline trumpeted the story of an anthrax-laced letter sent from Malaysia to Nevada with “Anthrax Confirmed in 3rd State.” Oops! That “confirmation” was eventually reversed, though readers never saw this reversal of ill fortune in anything close to a banner headline. (Rather, it was subtly downgraded in the paper’s anthrax graphics, finally disappearing at last on Oct. 19.)
There have been three other such splashes in the Post that have evaporated under the heat of scrutiny. On Oct. 19, the Post published a 15-paragraph story on the delivery of an anthrax-laden missive to Kenya, replete with insinuations of a link to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. Subsequent U.S. tests of the letter came back negative. The disclaimer on the Kenya incident was a one-paragraph brief in the Oct. 25 Post.
The very next day, on Oct. 20, the Post published a story about “evidence of anthrax” on a letter sent to the New York Times’ Rio de Janeiro bureau, including speculation that the recipient was targeted specifically for reporting on “Islamic terrorist activity.” The Miami Herald reported on Oct. 21 that subsequent tests on the letter ruled out anthrax contamination. The Post, on the other hand, merely lumped the Argentina incident into a group of “hoaxes” in an otherwise unrelated Nov. 2 article. (The Times took care of the story in two brief itemsone reporting the letter, and one saying that it tested negative.)
Closer to home, in Bethesda, the Post gave readers a lengthy Nov. 3 article on a “white powder” in an “unlocked car.” The headline also noted ominously that “Some Field Tests Indicate Anthrax Spores.” It took two days for the by-now inevitable headline”Bethesda Scare Probed as Hoax”to emerge on Nov. 5.
In that same Nov. 5 edition, the Post’s Science page featured a piece headlined: “Anthrax Has Inspired Dread and Breakthrough.” There’s been much more dread than breakthrough thus far in the Post’s attempts to grapple with bioterror, and it’s easy to disagree with ombudsman Michael Getler’s Nov. 4 assessment that the paper isn’t scaring readers.
Some of those readers were at the Supreme Court, which shut down entirely when an off-site mail facility was found with traces of anthrax in a filter. Anthrax was also discovered in the court’s mailroom, though the Post’s Supreme Court correspondent Charles Lanebusily hyping the “deadly microorganisms” and their disruption of the court’s “time-honored work patterns”didn’t say how much in his Nov. 6 article on the court’s return.
An anthrax retrenchment of sorts now appears to be underway at the Post. To wit, see David Brown’s Nov. 4 Outlook piece on the nuances of doctor-speak, or the Nov. 5 piece penned by Brown and Rick Weiss on tracking the “epidemiological enigma.” (The latter, in particular, was a succinct and nuanced account of possible explanations for “cross-contamination.”)
To this reader, however, it’s too little and too late.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Courtland
“Dear Courtland Milloy: It’s me, God. Thanks for your shout-out in Saturday’s Post Metro section. Contrary to your insinuations, I’m working 24-7, but I don’t blame you for the confusion. As Paul wrote of me so many years ago in Romans 11:33: ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ I’d suggest that many of the assertions of power ascribed to me in your columnnot to mention your queriesare misplaced, however. (For instance, I had nothing to do with the Yankees’ wins.) In the future, it would be most acceptable in my sight if you found another literary device in which to express your moral uncertainties. Yours, God.” Richard Byrne