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The Media's Fine Line
An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr

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Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr

From the first whisperings that a man in Florida was ill with anthrax, the story has been everywhere. The anthrax scare has dominated the front pages of newspapers, the radio airwaves and especially our television screens. Daniel Schorr says there's a fine line between covering the news and creating it, and that the television networks are in danger of crossing it.

Oct. 17, 2001 -- The White House has had some success in getting the television networks to cut back on airing statements from al Qaeda spokesmen. CNN, negotiating for an interview with Osama bin Laden, has promised to screen it for newsworthiness. Attorney General John Ashcroft has admonished government agencies to be careful about releasing documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

But the current anthrax crisis raises a more fundamental question about the media and terrorism -- the incentives that television unthinkingly offers to those seeking to terrify us.

The networks are settled into a now familiar routine of treating every anthrax scare, most of which are hoaxes, as a major news event, with live reports from correspondents, law enforcement and public health officials. Thus a small investment in a powdery substance can bring a big reward in media attention for antisocial elements who get their kicks that way.

"The anthrax crisis, placing huge burdens on public health, law enforcement and the post office, raises a question that the government has not yet raised: What are the networks supposed to do about it?"

Daniel Schorr

History provides examples of the multiplier effect of television on terrorism. In 1979, the young militants who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran were planning only a brief demonstration until they saw the cameras gathering outside the gates and learned that they were doing great on American television. And so they stayed for a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days. For hijackers, hijacking television is usually a part of their plan.

The anthrax crisis, placing huge burdens on public health, law enforcement and the post office, raises a question that the government has not yet raised: What are the networks supposed to do about it?

In the New York Review of Books, scientist Richard Garwin spells out some of the forms that terrorism can take. A particular hazard, he says, is a televised event, like a sports event. An aircraft laden with explosives or chemicals can dive into the stands, killing thousands. The attractiveness of such a tactic to terrorists can be reduced, says Garwin, by introducing a several-second delay in television transmission so that the slaughter could be taken off the air.

In normal times, media executives would not be expected to think in terms of how coverage may affect what is covered, but the anthrax crisis brings home the incentives to evildoers that television unwittingly offers, while trying to keep up with the story.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.