Westward Hoaxes

Denver officials and the press grope for the best way to deal with bogus anthrax scares.

This doesn't come as news to the press emissaries, but they still think the city should be able to speak with one voice when it comes to anthrax episodes, rather than making reporters seek out PIOs from an array of departments -- fire, police, health -- who may have just a portion of the facts. As it turns out, the city is prepared to accomplish this goal when there's a full-scale catastrophe: Sullivan points out that the Office of Emergency Management is designed to centralize and streamline data dispersal when the public faces a clear and present danger, in order to seriously reduce what he calls "honest misinformation." But Hudson says it wouldn't be a wise use of resources to keep the office running all the time, and even if it was open day and night, PIOs still couldn't dismiss the severity of a matter without getting all the facts first.

In other words, info vacuums of differing durations are inevitable, and Denver Health's Spaulding worries that some journalists are filling them by speculating about biochemical calamities in ways that promote fear instead of quelling it. "The first thing they ask is, 'Can you tell us it's not anthrax?'" she says. "Well, no, not right away -- but that seems to be the direction many reporters are taking, making that immediate leap."

To a person, the media reps refute this generalization, and highlight their patience and responsibility. They talk about post-Parker alerts that received much more modest coverage, like the closure of a wing at Denver's VA Hospital after the arrival of a mystery package from Pakistan (it contained books), or almost no attention at all, such as an evacuation at Golden's Colorado School of Mines. "We're not going to break into cartoons during the day and alarm people unless we're really sure," says a TV decision-maker. But such certainty is hard to come by, others argue, when city officials seldom seem to communicate with each other.

Jay Bevenour

"If there's another Parker," an executive says, "I need to know, do I send a crew, do I need to send them in protective gear? But it's hard to find people who know, and who'll tell us."

A radio rep agrees. He says his people were aware that the Parker powder was pudding for over half an hour before the city confirmed it -- meaning that for thirty minutes he was left to report that authorities weren't talking. But Mehrens notes, "We don't have a field test for pudding except tasting it." He adds, quite sensibly, "And I'm not going to taste it.

"We have to treat each case as if it's a dangerous situation," he goes on. "We have to put on protective gear. And that makes great TV, but it creates a lot of concern within the public. So what we'd ask is for you to understand that our response has to be extreme. There's no halfway: Either you protect yourself or you don't -- and we have to protect ourselves. That's why this is uncharted territory."

Reporters, editors and producers have been set adrift, too, but they say they've got a better grip on what to do now than they did two weeks ago.

"We've learned a lot since Parker."

"Yeah -- don't jump the gun."

"We're educating ourselves every day about what this is, what we're likely to find, and how to treat it."

"These are like bomb threats."


Although such exchanges don't lead to a lot of solutions, there are areas of agreement: The media corps laughs as one at a mention of the widely disparaged Denver International Airport press office, and even Harmer rolls her eyes. In the end, however, at least one reporter believes the city should err on the side of more information, not less: "It isn't your job to say what's important to let people know. We want all the information we can give them. That's our job."

Says another, "Tell us what you can tell us, and then come back and tell us more."

Hudson and company promise to consider these requests, and search out ways to implement them that won't cause Denverites to run wild in the streets. Not that Mehrens thinks citizens are silly for being nervous right now. He concedes that even fire-department veterans like himself are a little edgy.

"I went to HQ this morning, and there's what looks like white powder on the door," he says. "It was probably somebody eating a donut -- but I opened the door with my foot."

In the air tonight: In one of the most successful publicity blitzes in recent memory, bigshots from XM Satellite Radio who visited Denver last week generated innumerable electronic and print puff pieces about themselves.

The focus of these reports was on the gee-whiz aspects of the service -- specifically that users will be able to access a hundred channels of CD-quality music and news offerings of virtually every description from the comfort of their cars. But many complex issues that will eventually determine satellite radio's future were largely ignored or quickly brushed aside. For instance, in today's dire fiscal climate, will enough people spend $250-$300 for a satellite-radio player to make this extremely cost-intensive technology economically feasible? Will folks accustomed to receiving dozens of stations for free be keen to shell out $9.99 a month for broadcasts that will sport a smaller number of commercials but won't incorporate local traffic and weather information? Will the concept take off as cable television eventually did, or is a more apt analogy the Web, where one Internet radio station after another has folded in recent years because of their inability to translate fancy features into dollars and cents? And is there any guarantee that its sound will be markedly different from the corporate radio we know and hate already? Especially since the guys choosing the songs for XM were instrumental in creating corporate radio in the first place?

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