Thwarting TV's talking heads

Posted: Oct 17, 2001 12:00 AM
Bio-terrorism for dummies - tune in at 6. (ital) "Alrighty now, boys and girls, if you'll turn your TV monitors to CbinN, we'll learn exactly how to commit genocide through, yep, you guessed it, bio-terrorism!"(end ital) If recent incidents of anthrax exposure fail to create panic among Americans, it won't be because the news media didn't try. Every day, I learn more and more about anthrax and other methods of bio-terrorism simply by turning on the tube. In just a few weeks, I've learned how much anthrax it takes to induce fatal illness, how to distribute it, what the loopholes are, the obstacles to a cure, who's likely to get hit and how prepared (or unprepared) we are to deal with a massive outbreak. Are we scared yet, talking heads want to know? Yes, we're scared, but mostly of anchors/science teachers. Among our possible courses of action to thwart a bio-terrorist attack, is shutting up an option? As a member of the news media, I'm well aware of the demands of our calling. We're here to inform and, increasingly, to entertain. At some point, however - war, for instance - we have to modify the rules of our vocation lest we do more harm than good. Were we a licensed profession - and regrettably we're not - we should have to sign the same oath that doctors do: "First, do no harm." Like doctors, our power is immense, even to the point of influencing life-and-death results, if not decisions. Given our responsibility to inform, yes, we should report when people have been exposed to anthrax; yes, we should acknowledge that bio-terrorism is a concern. And of course we should inform the public of the magnitude of the threat - or the lack thereof - and publish information on how to detect and deal with exposure. But, no, we don't need a chirpy anchor personality asking in her best game-show voice, as one did recently: "Are we ready for bio-terror? We want to hear from you." (But first a commercial break.) And, no, we don't need to explain precisely how one distributes anthrax or other deadly substances in the most effective manner. Do we suppose that only patriotic Americans are paying attention? Even without the threat of a real enemy such as Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida, the United States is home to enough nuts, both natural and alien, to preclude making such information so explicit. Parenthetically, the few episodes of anthrax exposure thus far - a little powder here and there - seems weak work for the likes of those willing to plow an airplane through a building. It seems just as likely that some local whacko with a misdirected libido is playing games and enjoying the attention we're so delighted to provide. This morning, as I turned on CNN to make sure we were still on the globe, one of the ubiquitous blondes was noting that there are 22 known lethal agents and, stop, I'm not going to tell you the rest. She then went on to discuss our food supply, our water supply, our vulnerability, and, stop, other things I'm not going to repeat. I'm not suggesting that we bury our heads or that we institutionalize ignorance, but we might consider that Too Much Information isn't helping our cause. The media have a responsibility to be responsible, and that means sometimes we don't tell everything we know. I suspect that Mr. and Ms./Mrs./Miss John Q. Public gladly would sacrifice their right to know how to kill millions of Americans as long as John bin Fruitcake is equally unprepared. When National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the media not to air Osama bin Laden's videotaped messages, lest he be sending coded messages to enemies in our midst, the media cooperated. Rice correctly should ask that the media also censor themselves. After all, our First Amendment rights can only be exercised if we manage to stay alive. And no, I'm not opening my mail.