Aides urged stations to spread word on threat

TV: Broadcasters, practicing restraint, say they want to inform viewers, not frighten them.

October 18, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At his regularly scheduled monthly news conference yesterday, Police Commissioner Edward Norris said the City of Baltimore had gone to a heightened state of alert based on a vague threat of an anthrax attack downtown at 1:15 p.m.

Nothing new in the new America. "It just happens that you're all here," Norris told reporters, "so you can help us get the word out."

But the heavy attention by journalists to the news conference - which got significant play on the city's TV news stations, and a mention on national news by ABC's Peter Jennings - was no accident. City Hall aides called station officials just after 11 a.m. yesterday to urge coverage of the announcement by Norris and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

One station, WBAL-TV, initially balked about airing O'Malley's warning because it was leery about giving greater currency to unsubstantiated threats. It wasn't until well after the news conference that the FBI was identified as the source of the report, and had deemed the threat credible. But WBAL decided to broadcast the story only after another request by mayoral aide Rick Binetti.

Gail Bending, news director for WJZ (Channel 13), described her station's approach to the announcement this way: "Let people hear exactly what the mayor said, and exactly what his tone was." On the WJZ noon newscast, video of O'Malley's remarks was broadcast for roughly three-and-a-half minutes, a lifetime for the local news. The subject dominated the top of the newscast, but Bending said the station took unusual care with the tone used to present the story.

Stations were unable to broadcast the news conference live - which would have signaled an increased urgency - because of unrelated security measures at City Hall. But stations found ways to reach viewers.

WMAR (Channel 2) does not usually broadcast a noontime news program. But shortly after noon, WMAR provided a brief account by Jo Ann Bauer from outside City Hall. Just after 1:15 p.m. - the time the anthrax was supposed to be released - Bauer came on the air to assure viewers the city still was standing.

"Our responsibility is to keep our viewers informed to the best of our ability," said Staci Feger-Childers, WMAR's news director. "It is our duty not to do it in an alarmist way. We won't report every single building that's been evacuated."

At WBAL-TV, news director Margaret Cronan was reluctant to broadcast the city's announcement. "The policy of this newsroom is not to report threats," Cronan said. Just the previous evening, anchor Marianne Bannister had told viewers that they would be notified of any confirmed instance involving anthrax, but not of every case that caused a scare.

"It's the new `normal,' " Cronan said.

Nonetheless, she decided to broadcast a measured report in the second block of stories on the noon newscast, after she had a chance to review O'Malley's remarks. "We are going to have to question whether what we're reporting is going to help our viewers or alarm them," Cronan said. "Technically, the information they were giving was like any other threat. Because they felt it was a serious, credible threat, we decided to put it on the air."

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