Book Excerpt: Bioterror

This requires leadership at every level of government. Congress has held hearing after hearing on issues of WMD terrorism over the past four years, but what leadership have they contributed? I would say very little; so far, they have added to the confusion by breaking up the field into the jurisdiction of countless committees and by providing categorical funding that doesn't guide the federal agencies to do the best work they possibly can. State officials also need to show adaptability and leadership. They invite disaster by taking the easy route and leaving these issues entirely to federal lawmakers. Like their Washington brethren, they aren't acting, only reacting. But state lawmakers can also plan ahead, funding local training programs and beefing up the disease surveillance capabilities of their own state health departments. Many states prepare their local health and law enforcement professionals for natural disasters like earthquakes and fires, discrete events that do their considerable damage in a definite span of time; it shouldn't be hard to see the value of preparing for a manmade disaster that could cause the fullscale economic collapse that a large outbreak of contagious disease could cause.

6. Clean Up the Coverage.

Most of the press coverage of biological terrorism has been made up of scare stories, the give-'em-the-gross-details writing we like to call gorenography, and gee-whiz pieces detailing the high-tech schemes that various agencies are funding. That's a shame, because thoughtful news coverage could help keep lawmakers and agencies focused on the problems at hand, and keep them honest besides. That's the role of the press envisioned by the authors of the Constitution as key players in the national marketplace of ideas. First Amendment protection was granted to the press because the questions that journalists ask were seen as an essential part of the machinery of democracy itself. Instead, we're inundated with celebrity gossip and daily handicapping of political horse races. Today's press serves the attention deficit generation, not the needs of the nation. A few reporters have focused on the issues of biological terrorism intelligently, and with a critical eye:

Laurie Garrett's work for Newsday comes to mind, as does Richard Preston's work for the New Yorker. David Kaplan at U.S. News & World Report and Judith Miller and William Broad at The New York Times also shine a light in areas that desperately need to be seen. A single story doesn't shift the direction of the ship of state, though Preston's chilling July 1999 report on smallpox should have! But the information that top journalists like these put before the public helps inform us all and should lead to better policies and programs.

Reporters and editors also need to prepare themselves for writing about these outbreaks by learning what they can about the diseases that might be used. Reporting inaccurately that anthrax is a communicable disease like smallpox could worsen the panic in the midst of an attack. Journalists aren't agents of the government, and shouldn't be. But journalism, at its best, does serve the public interest.

7. We'll Understand It If We Actually Practice.

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