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On CNN’s Late Edition on Sunday morning, Michael Osterholm, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, concluded a segment with Wolf Blitzer on anthrax panic with these words:

“I’m concerned that the news media is reporting results right now that are preliminary results; that they’re making major policy statements….I think potentially even some of the positive test results that are currently being reported out are preliminary results which will be false. We all need to take a breath, including the news media right now. Because we’re heightening this fear that’s beyond its just desert.”

Osterholm’s point is apt—even five days later, and even after new reports of suspicious mailings. It’s hard to know what’s scarier these days: anthrax in an envelope or the media reports about it.

Whoever is spreading terror through the mail has a keen sense of aim. The American media’s colossal sense of self-importance has ensured that targeting tabloids, television networks, and major daily newspapers will generate the maximum level of public panic about anthrax. There was almost a whiff of excitement amid the unease as the story of a 2-week-old anthrax infection at NBC broke on Friday; the media themselves were “part of the story,” as MSNBC anchor Lester Holt remarked.

In such an atmosphere, even the U.S. Senate can’t get its props. As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, the highly dangerous anthrax spores deliberately sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office (which shut down mail to the Capitol) are being given the same weight on the three cable all-news channels as the mysterious (and cutaneous) anthrax infection of an ABC producer’s child that has no proven connection to exposure in a newsroom or terrorism. News judgment, anyone?

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Past the self-absorbed vanity, however, lies a deeper news crisis. The tools that the media—especially television—have honed these last five years to cover political character assassination and tawdry sleaze (the Monica and Chandra playbook, if you will) are proving woefully inadequate to deal with this new war. Viewers have been treated to a hopscotch from one uninformative press conference to another, or breathless live reports from parking lots and sidewalks. There have been prime-time cut-ins to report on news that isn’t breaking. Vital foreign stories—ranging from our bombing of Afghanistan to the fraying of our coalition in the war on terror—are buried under the hype of home-front hysteria.

Not that newspapers aren’t guilty as well. There’s been a rush by all media to lump what appear in some cases to be discrete anthrax events into one mess of fear-mongering. The most succinct example I can cite, ironically enough, comes from Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz’s Tuesday Web round-up of anthrax coverage. “We’re up to two anthrax shockers a day—one for each news cycle,” writes Kurtz. “And each one seems to have a new twist. The latest targets: politicians and kids. No wonder people are nervous.”

Let’s break this down. “Politicians and kids?” The Senate is a target, without a doubt. But where’s the proof that children have been “targeted?” No one has figured out yet where the child contracted anthrax, yet Kurtz asserts that ABC “had been hit.” Such sloppiness has infected almost all the media, regardless of format, over the past week.

In general, however, it must be noted that print is a more effective way of ordering such panic-inducing news and providing badly needed context. In the static world of newsprint, stories are weighed and placed carefully. Front page? Above or below the fold? The carousel of 24-hour news, however, whips such judgments into a flurry of pundit chatter, scrolling headlines, and even call-in opinions. Even when a sensible voice is given a platform, the format and the questioning skew toward the hype.

Another example, again from CNN, aired on Tuesday morning. In one corner, New York’s levelheaded and heroic Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the other corner, CNN’s Paula Zahn—freshly stolen away from Fox News Channel.

Paula Zahn: “And I know last night you said rather lightheartedly that you wouldn’t have gone into the ABC News headquarters if you didn’t think they were secure and safe, but have you—has anybody advised you, because of your involvement with the story, to take antibiotics as a precautionary measure?”

Mayor Rudy Giuliani: “No. I’m doing, I’m doing OK. I—”

Zahn: “All right.”

Giuliani: “I wanted to make sure I could go to the Yankee game last night, so—”

Zahn: “And they won.”

Giuliani: “…Everybody should go on with their life.”

Zahn: “Everybody’s attempting to, but in the meantime, there is so much concern, and particularly about the amount of volume of mail that comes into New York City. Can you give us some insights this morning as to the precautions that are being taken—taking place in various postal offices around the city, to ensure that the public is safe?”

Giuliani: “The mail is safe. The number of cases that we’ve had, both—either in New York or nationally—are an infinitesimal amount of mail that moves, so that, on a statistical basis, you know, your mail’s going to be fine….And remember, if any symptoms emerge, there’s a full and complete cure for this, so people should not overreact. They should remain calm. This is, this is all able to be handled by the health systems that are out there right now.”

Zahn: “And yet public opinion polls suggest the majority of Americans are very frightened by this.”

At every turn in the interview, Zahn shoots down common sense and goes for the panic button.

It’s harder to write a prescription for what ails American media at this moment. If I had an Rx pad, I’d start with a few sensible suggestions: Vet the spate of news conferences as closely as an al Qaeda video and edit them down. Give scientists and medical experts the same play (or more) that’s given to pundits, military analysts, and authors hawking books on bio-terror. Spend more time on news happening outside of the newsrooms swept for anthrax contamination.

In short, take that deep breath that Osterholm urges, and get back to giving Americans a context for this troubling story, rather than a complex about it.

A Tale of Two Cities

The Washington Post, Oct. 14: “Shock of War May Have Changed the Tone in Politics: As Polls Find Public Confidence in Government Soaring, Leaders Seem to Rise to the Occasion With Bipartisan Effort.” The New York Times, Oct. 14: “Congress Resumes Partisan Warfare.”

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Among the “news” headlines scrolled at the bottom of CNN on Monday night: “New Mexico Muslim Wears Red, White & Blue Turban To Show His Support For His Country.” —Richard Byrne