In Media Frenzy, Disaster Trumps Scandal

A three-column front-page headline in The New York Times: "Asteroid Is Expected to Make a Pass Close to Earth in 2028."

Could even hit the earth, it says here, with devastating effects like continent-size fires, vast clouds of dust, millions and millions of people killed. You can feel the nervousness that courses through the country. On television they make anxious little jokes.

"Do we still have time for the last episode of Seinfeld?" "Will the asteroid close down the Kenneth Starr investigation?"

A couple of days of suppressed panic, and then word from NASA.

The asteroid will miss the planet by 600,000 miles.

Whew! The moon is 240,000 miles away, for Pete's sake. Why were we biting our nails?

What is it with these scare stories, all those nasty El Nios, lurking out there to do us wholesale harm? It is my theory that natural threats are needed by the media to compete with the scandals and all the human folly that hold our attention.

So, one day we learn that the FBI has arrested two men in Las Vegas suspected of carrying anthrax germs. Anthrax? You mean the stuff Saddam Hussein is supposed to be hiding, a jar of which, according to Defense Secretary William Cohen, could wipe out a city? Yes, anthrax.

Well, about the time they are getting ready to search the New York City subway system, the FBI comes out and says, no, not anthrax disease, but a common anti-anthrax vaccine. Well, couldn't they have waited a few days before scaring the wits out of us?

Or, take cloning. In February of last year, Dr. Ian Wilmut in Scotland announces that from the mammary cells of a six-year-old ewe he has cloned a sheep named Dolly.

Next thing, Dr. Richard Seed in Chicago says he will clone a human being. Not with federal money, you don't, says President Clinton, calling human cloning "morally unacceptable."

The idea of seeing lots of twos of us where there were ones before is enough to make us shudder.

About the time we are really scared, we are told that Dr. Seed, who is only a physicist anyway, could not do it in a million years. And then we are told that Dolly was not a true clone to begin with. Something about Dr. Wilmut not using an adult cell but a fetal cell, which makes it something other than cloning.

This has been a jittery time, worrying about the asteroid, anthrax, cloning, not to mention all the El Nios.

Oh, for the day when all we had to worry about was the next alien spaceship.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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