Headline news: Outside the NBC News building in New York after the announcement that an employee had been infected. It wasn’t just the growing likelihood that we were under a bio attack (after all, we’ve been warned again and again, with the FBI ratcheting up the suspense). It was that the media was under bio attack. This was as weird as it was terrifying. Or, really, there seemed to be a constant recalibration of which was greater-the weirdness or the terror.
It was bizarre that the supermarket tabloids were targeted (if you wanted to attack the media, would you begin with the tabloids?). But now it wasn’t just the tabloids; it was NBC and the New York Times. Was the idea to go from one end of the journalistic food chain to the other-least credible to most credible? And what a touch to send Judith Miller, at the Times, author of a book about bio warfare, an envelope of possible bio agents. How media-savvy was Osama bin Laden (with his karaoke microphone)?
And the mayor was back in his reassuring mode, this time with NBC chairman Bob Wright (did Jack Welch regret missing the moment?), who announced that Tom Brokaw’s assistant, who contracted anthrax, was expected “to recover completely.”
The New York anthrax was, we learned, cutaneous anthrax, the good kind, as opposed to the bad kind, inhalation anthrax, in Florida.
But reassurance didn’t last long. The Times, after all, had locked everyone in. And there were people in haz-mat suits visible from the Condé Nast Building. “The irony is that the media have faithfully transmitted the reassuring statements of authorities that these anthrax cases are not a terrorist attack, but suddenly it’s a bit harder to keep your knuckles from turning white,” said the Washington Post’s media columnist Howard Kurtz when I called to ask him if the Post was reporting this as a national story or a media story.
It would probably be a little of both, he said. Then he read me the internal e-mail he’d just received: “Some people who open a lot of mail may prefer to use latex gloves when performing that duty … “
Fit to print: Police officers outside of the New York Times offices on Friday, Oct. 12, 2001. Indeed, it was far from clear whether the nation as a whole would see this as a new threat against the country or as a parochial media event. This was another part of the weirdness. What if this had nothing to do with international terrorism and was just usual American celebrity madness? (Could it be that an envious author whose book about the Middle East hadn’t become a best-seller had targeted Judith Miller?)
It was hard for people in the media business-many of whose friends were being quarantined in the New York Times building (there was a great deal of trading in cell-phone numbers) – to right away get the proper affect. A certain gravity, and self-importance (one did not, apparently, have to be in Islamabad to look fear in the face), gave way to a sense of the black comedy of the situation. The WTC attack had so raised the bar in terms of terror occasions that, well, what was a little cutaneous anthrax among friends?
There was even a kind of reverse competitiveness. As a CBS employee said, “At least we’re not the No. 1-rated network. I feel like if we had been, it would’ve been us.”
Keith Kelly, the New York Post’s media reporter, who was just being handed latex gloves when I called him, said: “It seems all right to make jokes about this.” His immediate concern was getting to the NBC woman with the infection, who, he said with some discouragement, would probably give her first interview to NBC.
All in the family: MSNBC reports on the infected NBC employee. But if you thought very long about the weirdness, it got to be terrifying again. “Just because you see lots of people in bubble suits,” said a friend at NBC, “there’s no reason to assume there’s a secret that no one wants to talk about.” Which sounded truly terrifying.
But in the end, everybody got down to basics. “Sending the powder to NBC and the New York Times and other news organizations is a highly effective way to spread a feeling of panic, since the media are all so self-obsessed and will splash the story everywhere, thus freaking out the entire country,” read an e-mail from a colleague at another news organization, asking me for a comment.
Photos: Matt Moyer, AP; Shawn Baldwin, AP; Screenshot of MSNBC