By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer
(AP) It wasn’t a prop when NBC “Nightly News” anchorman Tom Brokaw held up a bottle of the anti-anthrax drug Cipro on the air. The pills were his own supply.
Brokaw has flashed anger, guilt, and a little bit of fright since it was revealed Friday that his personal assistant had tested positive for anthrax after opening an infected letter addressed to him.
News organizations have been forced in recent days to explain a complicated, scary story to the public that has directly affected their own people. They’re both telling the story and living it.
“I suspect that many of us have the same surreal feeling,” Brokaw said, “that we’re watching a movie — and we’re in it.”
Investigators combed the ABC News headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Tuesday after it was reported that a network producer’s 7-month-old had been hospitalized with anthrax.
Unlike NBC, where Brokaw was forced to move out of his regular studio for at least a week, ABC’s “World News Tonight” stayed in its third-floor home. The ABC producer who brought her son to work wasn’t in that immediate area.
Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times who was sent a suspicious letter that tested negative for anthrax, wrote a first-person account about her experience and appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to discuss it.
Like hundreds of fellow NBC News employees, Brokaw was tested for anthrax and prescribed Cipro as a precautionary measure.
“Nightly News” executive producer Steve Capus, managing his staff’s move to makeshift offices, is constantly reminded about what the public needs to know on the story from the questions that come from his own people.
“I am sensitive to a responsibility that I think all journalists have these days, which is dealing with facts — not hyping or being overly dramatic,” Capus said. “Just report the news straightforwardly.”
When NBC reported on a suspected anthrax incidence, it is careful to follow up with the results of negative tests. The network is also trying to stay away from hoaxes, he said.
When the first case of anthrax was reported in a Florida photographer, news outlets seemed to have trouble finding reliable information about anthrax, said Carol Gentry, director of the Knight Public Health Journalism Fellowships at the Centers for Disease Control.
Since then, most organizations have found their footing and “I’ve been impressed with their even-handedness,” she said.
Television networks “have been forced to be a little bit restrained, probably because internally they are concerned about the health and welfare of their own employees,” said Robert Logan, director of the Science Journalism Center at the University of Missouri.
TV reporters are bending over backward not to spread panic, said Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast program at Northwestern University’s journalism school. One exception he cited: some of the cable news network talk shows.
“I see some anger in Brokaw in the one commentary he made and I sometimes see anger in other people,” Angotti said. “But I don’t find it disturbing and I don’t think it’s affecting their objectivity in covering the story.”
If there is an organized terror campaign, it’s being done by people who know the media well and use television’s tendencies to spread unease, Gentry said. They understand the continuous news hole that cable news networks must fill.
CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC have a very difficult balance, CNN anchorman Aaron Brown said.
“I have tried to present this stuff very slowly, very carefully,” he said. “People need to understand the dimension of what it is — and what it’s not: There doesn’t seem to be any widespread attack on people — but none of us knows where this is going.”
Brown said he doesn’t envy President Bush’s effort to deal with both prudence and paranoia. He has to urge people to get on a plane to take business trips while his vice president spent many days in a secure location.
“If our messages are mixed, they are no more so than the messages the government is forced to put out,” he said. “Why? Because it’s all uncertain.”