Anthrax scare frays nerves in TV newsrooms

Oct 22, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The assistants to major TV executives were a nervous lot last week as the anthrax scares continued.
“They haven’t been giving us mail to open,” said the assistant to a top CBS executive in New York. “It comes to my desk already opened. On one hand, that’s a big relief. On the other hand, it’s sort of frustrating. Even packages that are sent to me by messenger, that I’m expecting, are routed somewhere else to be opened. So I’m trying to stay calm.”
Over at ABC, also in New York, another assistant to a top executive said she is still opening mail for her boss, “but I’m being very careful. I got one letter addressed to me from someone I didn’t know, and I just tossed it. I didn’t even open it. Whenever I can I’m having people e-mail me things for my boss and I’m e-mailing back instead of using snail mail. But there’s definitely fear here. I especially see it in kids under 25.”
In light of the anthrax attacks and prevailing nervousness, TV networks and news organizations have instituted new mail procedures.
One of the biggest changes has been in how networks will accept contest entries and ticket requests.
For example, anyone who thinks his or her apple pie recipe could be “The Pie of Emeril’s Eye” in ”Good Morning America’s” annual contest must put the recipe on a postcard.
“Isn’t it sad we have to do that?” host Charles Gibson said on Friday morning. “We can’t and won’t accept envelopes.”
Anyone interested in tickets to “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” has to request them by e-mail or phone. They can’t get them via snail mail anymore.
NBC, in the words of one staffer, is “not taking mail from strangers.”
NBC isn’t the only media business at which once-standard business practices are being altered on a daily basis.
In the week following the Oct. 12 news that an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw was diagnosed with skin anthrax, more anthrax cases at news organizations were reported, including the 7-month-old baby of an ABC News producer, an assistant to CBS News anchor Dan Rather and, on Friday, an assistant to the editorial page editor of News Corp.’s New York Post.

Though ABC, CBS and the Post by week’s end were unable to pinpoint the source of the anthrax, evidence mounted that the letters in which the spores were delivered to the offices of Mr. Brokaw and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., were connected by more than a postmark from Trenton, N.J., where two postal workers also had contracted the disease.
The networks and other businesses in New York and across the country have heightened security in general-and in their mailrooms in particular.
New mailroom procedures ranged from new mail-sorting procedures to near-total shutdown. For example, MSNBC was stuffing most mail into a trailer on its lot in Secaucus, N.J., and allowing only mail that was clearly business-to-business and “expected” into the building.
At ABC headquarters in New York, revolving doors have been locked, and employees have to show photo identification-required to be visible at all times while they are at work-before a swinging door is opened by a team of guards.
“The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” whose studio is in NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters, had canceled a week’s worth of shows but was expected to return Monday. Because “Rosie” dispenses a season’s worth of tickets via lottery each spring, the ticket question was moot.
But at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” fans who want to be in the audience for a taping now have to put their requests on postcards. Sealed mail has been ruled out since Sept. 11.
At Court TV, which is headquartered across the street from New York Gov. George Pataki’s midtown Manhattan office, where an anthrax-tainted envelope was found last week, the word is that picture-ID badges soon will replace current employee badges. Counseling is available for fearful or depressed employees.
Meanwhile, security-conscious Web surfers sent visitor levels skyrocketing at Internet sites maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. For the week ending Oct. 14, traffic was up 518 percent over the previous week at FBI.gov, up 118 percent at CDC.gov and up 62 percent at USDOJ.gov, according to Nielsen// NetRatings.