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."