Anthrax hits close to home for journalists

N.Y. media community struggles to stay focused amid NBC, Times scares

`Looks like a concerted attack'

October 13, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

When she got word late yesterday morning, Joanna Giddon, a pregnant NBC spokeswoman, bolted to an exit on the 25th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City. As she ran, she shouted over her shoulder: "Everybody get out of the building - there's anthrax!"

With a mixture of resignation, gallows humor and outright alarm, the city's tightly knit community of journalists tried to keep focused yesterday on telling the larger story, even as they became part of it themselves. The newspapers and the nightly news are filled each day with developments about the terrorist attacks and subsequent military activity in Afghanistan. Thousands of people have died, many of them friends, relatives or neighbors. Reporters understand the big picture.

Yet yesterday's confirmation of an NBC staffer's infection with anthrax has nonetheless shaken up much of the media world, just days after three employees of a Florida tabloid newspaper company were determined to have been infected with anthrax. One of those three died from the infection.

"This looks like a concerted attack against the media. This is the first time that anybody felt that," said Lisa Beyer, foreign editor of Time magazine. "But before that, because they worked in New York, they felt exposed."

New York City is considered the world's media capital, and the industry employs tens of thousands of people there, from the six employees at the Gay Cable Network to the 4,900 people at the main office of The New York Times. One authoritative directory lists more than 3,800 publications and broadcasters doing business in the city. And midtown Manhattan, where NBC's offices at Rockefeller Center can be found, is at the profession's core.

Late yesterday morning, staffers at Conde Nast publications such as Vogue and the New Yorker watched from their windows as police evacuated Times workers from their 43rd Street offices - about seven blocks south of NBC. Judith Miller, a Times reporter who covers bio-terrorism and is an expert on the Middle East, had opened a package that spilled out an unknown white substance.

"We all have a lot of friends or spouses who work over at The New York Times," said Perri Dorset, the director of public relations at New Yorker magazine. "It's really bringing it home."

Throughout the city, journalists clustered around television sets to find out what was happening to their peers. Some joked darkly about colleagues who were telecommuting - "what did they know that we didn't?" - while others desperately called their friends at NBC to confirm that they were healthy. Some had learned the identity of the anthrax patient before the incident was publicly confirmed: the personal assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

ABC, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, the New Yorker, and the Times are just a few of the media outlets that halted mail delivery yesterday after a flurry of memos from executives.

A Time letter told employees - whose offices are a short walk away from NBC - there was no need to leave the building, as the package believed to have contained the anthrax was received at NBC more than two weeks ago. ABC News President David Westin wrote to his staff: "This is unquestionably serious and troubling. At the same time, you should know that we have no information whatsoever indicating that there are any threats against ABC News."

At the New York Post, employees were given the choice of wearing clear plastic gloves while they worked.

"Doctors use 'em. Dentists use 'em. I guess we can type with them," said Keith J. Kelly, a media columnist for the Post, who nonetheless said he didn't want a pair.

At Time magazine, Beyer and her fellow senior editors held a meeting to address staffers' fears. Several science writers discounted the possibility of terrorist involvement in sending anthrax by mail. It would be as inefficient a means of terror as driving a motorcycle into a building, said one science reporter.

Beyer said others approached her after the meeting, however, to ask why the old Time-Life building hadn't been evacuated, or whether they could work from home.

One young journalist said the whole whirligig of stories based on terror and fear had sapped her journalistic ambitions.

"Originally, I came into this job hoping to cover exciting, adrenaline-rushing current events," said the CBS News reporter, who would not allow her name to be used. "For the first couple of days [after the terrorist attacks] I was really psyched. Now I have no interest in doing anything like this any more."

Vicki Mabrey, a correspondent on CBS' 60 Minutes II, sounded more blase about the incident - primarily, she said, because unhinged people often attempt to menace people who appear on the air. "Usually it's just threats and deadly rantings," Mabrey said. "We're just going to be much more careful from now on."

Special correspondents Katie Arcieri and Tamara Ikenberg contributed to this article from New York.

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