Press Watch

Press Watch

The Times fans the flames of public fear around the anthrax attacks.


Few books in recent times have received a greater boost from events than Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. A study of bioterrorism by New York Times staff members Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, the book was arriving in stores even as the twin towers were falling, and Simon & Schuster quickly upped its press run from 15,000 to 115,000. In early October, Germs made the Times's bestseller list, and, propelled by the anthrax attacks, it soon hit number one. The Times itself has helped, putting the book on the front page of the Book Review and allowing Miller to write a rare first-person account of her experience of receiving a letter laced with powder. Miller herself has been ubiquitous on TV, appearing on every channel, it seems, but the Food Network.

All the while, she and her two co-authors have been covering bioterrorism for the Times. To a degree, this has been a plus for the paper. In Germs, Miller, Engelberg and Broad provide a detailed history of bioweapons programs, including the United States' largely secret experiments during and after World War II, the former Soviet Union's massive buildup after signing a ban on such weapons in 1972 and Saddam Hussein's push to develop a smorgasbord of deadly pathogens in Iraq. Drawing on this research, the trio has contributed some sharp stories about the lax security in Russia's remaining labs and about America's lack of preparedness for dealing with a biological attack.

But such a situation poses some clear risks. Reporters covering a story about which they have a book out can get locked into pushing a particular story line and relying on a fixed set of sources. And they face the constant temptation of covering events in a way that promotes their book. With a story as complex and fast-moving as the anthrax attacks, of course, missteps are inevitable, but surveying the Times's coverage, I think the paper has often gotten it wrong.

The first sign of trouble appeared on October 17, the day after it was revealed that the anthrax mailed to the office of Senator Tom Daschle was highly refined. "Sign of Escalating Threat," ran the headline atop a front-page analysis by Engelberg and Miller. According to them, the high quality of the anthrax suggested to officials that "somewhere, someone has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties." An "adversary armed with anthrax in this form would have a host of possible targets for mass terrorism," including "a city or large office building," they wrote. Citing a "former scientist," the article stated that the discovery of such anthrax "casts serious doubt on the theory advanced by some investigators that the germ attacks were the work of a lone amateur with a smattering of knowledge about biology." "I do think that in one form or another, a state was involved," another unnamed scientist was quoted as saying. The article also named three states that have developed anthrax as a weapon–the United States, the Soviet Union and Iraq–the same three that Germs focuses on.

With its alarmist language and strong suggestion of state sponsorship, this article set the tone for subsequent Times coverage. Thus, on October 19, William Broad and David Johnston reported that investigators suspected that the anthrax letters were "related to the September 11 attacks" and that they were investigating "the possibility that Al Qaeda confederates of the hijackers are behind the incidents." Noting that the letters sent to Daschle and to NBC both had a Trenton postmark, the article pointed out that several of the hijackers lived in New Jersey. Investigators, it added, were focusing on Mohamed Atta, a "hijacking ringleader."

Meanwhile, as the Bush Administration attempted to calm public fears about the extent of the danger, the Times was fanning them. "Despite Bush Administration officials' earlier efforts to minimize the threat," Miller and Sheryl Gay Stolberg stated in an October 25 front-page story, "public-health and law-enforcement officials agreed today that the anthrax in the letter to Senator Daschle was especially dangerous." Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was quoted as being "angry" about Administration statements suggesting that the Daschle anthrax "posed only a limited threat." The next day, Miller and Stolberg, back on the front page, reported with satisfaction that the Administration, in a "180-degree turnabout," was now acknowledging the seriousness of the threat posed by the Daschle letter. "With two postal workers in Washington dead and others falling sick, presumably from exposure to the Daschle letter and perhaps from others like it," they asserted, "it is no longer possible for the Administration to speak in such reassuring tones."

In the same edition–but not on the front page–Miller and Broad reported that Administration officials, in a private briefing, had steered senators "away from linking Iraq with the anthrax strain" found in the Daschle letter. While some experts had said that "only three countries" were known to make the high-grade anthrax powder, "others," they wrote, said that "the techniques used in those programs were now sufficiently common that a well-trained scientist in a private laboratory could have produced similar results." In short, the Times was backtracking from its October 17 story, but with the account buried on page B7, only the most diligent readers would have noticed.

In the end, it was the Washington Post that broke the news about where the anthrax investigation was heading. "FBI, CIA Suspect US Extremists in Anthrax Cases," the Post declared on its front page on October 28. According to Bob Woodward and Dan Eggen, officials had come to believe that the anthrax attacks were "likely the work of one or more extremists in the United States who are probably not connected to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization." Officials, they added, were considering a "wide range of domestic possibilities, including associates of right-wing hate groups and US residents sympathetic to the causes of Islamic extremists." One official told them that "nobody believes the anthrax scare we are going through" is the next wave of terrorism.

The Times ignored this. Only in passing did it report on investigators' suspicions about the involvement of domestic extremists. Meanwhile, the paper continued to play up the risks from the attacks. "Hospital Worker's Illness Suggests Widening Threat," it blared on October 31, after Kathy Nguyen tested positive for anthrax.

On November 13, PBS–adding fuel to the fire–aired a ninety-minute Nova special based on Germs. It was as much about the book's three authors as it was about bioweapons. Over and over we were treated to glimpses of Broad earnestly scribbling notes while interviewing experts, and to shots of Miller–dressed in various protective raiment–preparing to enter germ plants around the world. Interviewed at her desk, Miller dramatically recreated the moment when she opened the powder-filled envelope. "I realize that this really is a weapon of mass disruption…and that the disruption can be just as debilitating to a society…as actual deaths," she said. Yet the Nova program itself seemed to go out of its way to stoke public fears about bioterrorism, describing mass-death scenarios against a backdrop of creepy horror-movie music. The program ended with an 800 number viewers could call to order Germs.

The investigation into the origins of the anthrax letters will no doubt take further twists and turns. On November 25, in fact, the Post, in another important story that partly contradicted its earlier one, reported that the Ames strain used in the attacks–once thought to be widely accessible to researchers–"now appears to have circulated in only a small universe of laboratories." According to reporters Steve Fainaru and Joby Warrick, investigators "have had to face the possibility" that the Ames strain "may have slipped through an informal network of scientists to Iraq." That country, they observed, had sought the strain from a British biodefense institute in 1988. It was turned down, but investigators were trying to determine whether Baghdad managed to obtain the strain elsewhere.

Reading this, I was reminded of Watergate, in which big-name reporters were scooped by hard-working police reporters developing their own sources. Here, the Times, despite having a glamour team on the beat, has missed some of the major turns in the anthrax investigation. Worse, the paper has uncharacteristically joined in the general sensationalism over the attacks, thereby contributing to the sense of panic in the land.

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