WASHINGTON — The White House has had some success in getting the television networks to cut back on airing statements from Al Qaeda spokesmen.
CNN, negotiating for an interview with Osama bin Laden, has promised to screen it for newsworthiness. Attorney General John Ashcroft has admonished government agencies to be more careful about releasing documents under the Freedom of Information Act. But the current high alert over anthrax raises a more fundamental question about television and terrorism - the incentives that television unthinkingly offers to those seeking to terrify us.
The networks have settled into a new familiar routine of treating every anthrax scare - most of them hoaxes - as a major news event, with live reports from correspondents, law-enforcement, and public health officials. Thus, a small investment in a powdery substance can bring a big reward in media attention for antisocial elements who get their kicks that way.
History provides examples of the multiplier effect of TV on terrorism. In 1979, the young militants who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran were planning only a brief demonstration - until they saw the cameras gathering outside and learned that they were doing great on American television. So they stayed for a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days.
For hijackers, hijacking television is usually a part of their plan. The anthrax scare, placing huge burdens on public health, law enforcement, and the post office, raises a question that the government has not yet addressed: What are the networks supposed to do about it?
In the New York Review of Books, scientist Richard Garwin spells out some of the forms that terrorism can take. A particular hazard, he says, is a televised event - like a sports event. An aircraft laden with explosives or chemicals can dive into the stands, killing thousands. The attractiveness of such a tactic to terrorists can be reduced, he says, by introducing a several-second delay in television transmission, so that the slaughter could be taken off the air.
In normal times, media executives would not be expected to think in terms of how coverage may affect what is covered. But the current anxiety over anthrax brings home the incentives to evil-doers that television unwittingly offers, while trying to keep up with the story.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.