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ABC Hatches Weeklong Series on Bird Flu
In 2003, ABC questioned government’s bioterrorism warnings, but now emphasizes latest concerns on bird flu.

By Ken Shepherd
Business & Media Institute
March 14, 2006

Send this page to a friend! (click here)     What a difference three years and a microscopic virus make. In February 2003, ABC featured critics who argued that duct tape government officials urged people to buy couldn’t fix everything. Three years later, however, the network is parroting the government’s worst fears about avian flu.

     On Feb. 10, 2003, the newly-minted Department of Homeland Security (DHS) urged Americans to prepare for bioterrorism by stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape. In the days that followed, ABC’s news programs relayed the federal government’s warnings but also aired criticism from skeptics, who feared the advice to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting offered no real protection or that the threat was highly improbable.

     Three years later, as the federal government warns about migratory birds which could spread avian flu to birds in the U.S., the same network is clucking heavily about a coming pandemic, without giving much air time to skeptics who note how rare human cases have been – less than 100 deaths worldwide.

     While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “issued some specific recommendations” for the public to follow to prepare for biological or chemical terrorism, “there is some skepticism about the government's advice,” cautioned substitute anchor Clair Shipman on the Feb. 11, 2003 “World News Tonight. Correspondent John McKenzie then featured UCLA Medical School’s Dr. Peter Katona arguing that the “recommendation to use duct tape and plastic” would only incite fear among the public and “have virtually no effect on any protection.”

     Three days later “Good Morning America” co-host Diane Sawyer interviewed Georgetown University psychiatrist Steve Epstein, who urged ABC viewers to have a contingency plan in case of terrorist attack. Dr. Epstein explained that while the chances for a terror attack were “still very, very low,” the fear of terrorism is more pervasive because “risks that we’re familiar with are much less frightening.”

     On Feb. 19, 2003 – over a week after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s press conference – “World News Tonight,” correspondent Pierre Thomas showcased “local public safety officials” who said that the federal government was “overblowing the threat” of terrorism with a media blitz on TV, radio, billboards, and print media featuring public service announcements about terrorism threats.

     That was then and this is now as ABC News presents a weeklong look at the bird flu virus in the series “Bird Flu: Fears, Facts and Fiction.”

     Following just days after an alarming speech given by HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt on a possible avian flu pandemic, ABC kicked off a weeklong series on the March 13 “Good Morning America” with two stories focused on how the H5N1 avian flu virus could reach the United States: via migratory bird or by an infected human spreading it on a commercial airliner.

     After noting that “fewer than 100 report human deaths” have resulted worldwide from the bird flu, Brian Ross closed his report on infected migratory birds by sharing a “worst-case scenario” in which half the country contracts the flu after three months of an outbreak. And of the three experts featured in correspondent Jim Avila’s March 13 story, none emphasized how rare human cases of bird flu were, instead focusing on what the worst-case scenarios would be in the event of an outbreak.

     Avila warned “Good Morning America” co-host Charles Gibson that “when and if” bird flu migrates from fowl to humans, it would be much less safe to fly the friendly skies, citing Dr. Mark Gendreau, an aviation medicine specialist who warned that anyone seated within five rows of a person sick with avian flu could catch the disease.

     The next day, co-host Robin Roberts repeated the government warning to stock up on tuna fish and powdered milk while reviewing with a Red Cross official emergency supplies to keep in stock in case of bird flu emergency.

     The morning show’s
Web site, video segments also included “Face-Off: How much protection would a face mask offer during a flu epidemic?” and “Be Ready: A nuts-and-bolts guide to prepare you for a pandemic.”

     ABC’s weeklong push on bird flu is only the latest hype the media has hatched on bird flu. The Business & Media Institute has previously documented how the media have come down with bird flu fever.