Getting Mixed Messages on Terror Threat-And Giving Them, Too

By any measure, Oct. 6 was a bountiful and tricky day for television news.

In the morning, the President gave a speech outlining the terrible things that could happen if the U.S. military were to leave Iraq too soon. Several hours later, word came that Karl Rove, his top advisor, was not yet clear of the threat of indictment. Bird flu was coming; Hurricane Katrina funds were going fast.

Then, at 4:30 p.m., as producers were emerging from editorial meetings with their evening-news lineups, one last piece of news broke: Any day now, 19 terrorists would explode bombs in baby carriages on the New York City subway. Or—they wouldn’t.

It was a problematic story. Federal and local officials disagreed about the credibility of the threat. Multiple and conflicting political motivations could have been in play. And, as ever, there was a fine line between informing the viewing public about terror threats and merely alarming everyone.

So when the wire report appeared on Keith Olbermann’s computer screen, the anchor got up from his desk and marched into MSNBC’s newsroom in Secaucus.

“How many times is this?” he asked his staff, haute voix. “How many times has this happened?”

By “this,” Mr. Olbermann said, he meant an auspicious confluence of big news stories, one distracting from another distracting from another, capped off with a late-breaking terror-threat bulletin. And by “how many times,” he meant literally.

Thus, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a 5:30 p.m. press conference urging everyone to stay calm and the major networks prepared stories on the threat, Mr. Olbermann’s staff began tallying up the precedents. By the 8 p.m. start of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, they had picked out 13 examples of what Mr. Olbermann considered suspiciously timed news stories. Said the host near the top of his show: “How could the coincidences be so consistent?”

Asked later if this wasn’t maybe a little kooky, Mr. Olbermann explained that it was merely his way of demonstrating skepticism about the legitimacy of publicizing this kind of threat. He said he was planning another segment for Oct. 12, this time featuring 16 different examples. On Oct. 11, CNN and others began reporting that the threat was actually a hoax. “There is a—I don’t want to call it a bullshit detector,” Mr. Olbermann had said in an interview the day before. “Let’s call it a too-many-coincidences detector.”

The initial threat report did serve to bump the news of Mr. Rove’s apparent legal troubles lower in the major-network broadcasts. NBC led its 6:30 newscast with a piece on Mr. Rove, then pre-empted that segment for the subway story in its 7 p.m. broadcast, which is taped and aired later on the West Coast. ABC and CBS had already led with the threat at 6:30.

The networks had seemingly exercised their own coincidence detectors, crashing ambivalent pieces that quoted both local officials who deemed it serious and federal officials, like one CBS source, who called it “imagination run amok.” Still, it was next to impossible to find a cab that evening, as Manhattanites evidently opted for non-threatened means of transportation.

All three networks led with the threat again on Friday.

As for Mr. Olbermann’s “juxtaposition theory” segment, the host brought on Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and the enterprising author of a new book titled Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media. Mr. Crawford criticized the media for being too trusting of the Mayor, the NYPD and the F.B.I.

On Friday, Mr. Crawford contributed to CBSNews.com’s new Public Eye blog: “The news media should be aggressive and skeptical from the outset about the possibility of manipulation in these moments. Instead, we have an environment that spooks reporters and their bosses off this trail, especially when the alerts are first announced, because they know that the politicians will attack them for being callous, or worse, treasonous.”

Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight, said this criticism misses the point. And that point is that a broadcast-network newscast can only do so much vetting.

“Look,” said Mr. Banner, “we tried to shed as much light on the story as possible. We told the facts as we knew them, based on what our sources were telling us as to what led to the threat. We also included some of the back-and-forth as to whether the threat should be believed.”

Television news has been particularly proactive about reporting on terror threats since before even the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, said Dan Forman, a longtime broadcaster and the station manager and senior vice president of WNBC Channel 4 in New York—which made headlines for having had the subway-threat story days before the Mayor’s press conference and not running with it.

Mr. Forman said he dates the sensitivity about getting the news out to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Embassies had been warned about possible terror attacks, but the news media didn’t pick up the story.

Channel 4 investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst, the reporter on the subway-threat tip, likewise cited Lockerbie. Mr. Dienst was a Colgate junior studying abroad in London when Flight 103 was brought down, and two of his friends were on board. That was what made him decide to go into journalism, he said.

It was Oct. 3—four days before the Mayor’s press conference and Mr. Olbermann’s theorizing—that Mr. Dienst first got wind of the suspected subway plot. He reported it out on Tuesday, he said, and planned a segment for the 5 o’clock news. But before the piece aired, three officials—two federal, one local—called and asked the station to hold the piece, citing public safety and national security, Mr. Dienst said.

“In one of the conversations, I said, ‘Look, there are people getting on the subways. Don’t they have a right or need to know?’” Mr. Dienst said. “You don’t take it lightly, but these officials were in the best place to know.”

After consulting with Mr. Forman and wrestling briefly with his conscience, he deferred to the officials and sacrificed his scoop.

“We had to hold the story,” Mr. Forman said. “That was a very tough decision, because we’re in the business of reporting the truth to the public. That’s our mission. But sometimes that has to be hampered by the public good.”

Geraldo: Good for What Ailes Fox?

When Geraldo Rivera’s new half-hour news show launches without irony this Halloween, it will be Roger Ailes’ first really visible fingerprint on the Fox Television Stations Group.

Mr. Rivera’s show, Geraldo at Large (not to be confused with his current weekend Fox News show, At Large with Geraldo Rivera), is to be shot live in New York and funneled out to the 35 Fox affiliates around the country, as well as other network affiliates who may buy the rights to the program. At the Fox stations, the show will become a hallmark of the Fox group’s newly revealed strategy for local programming: creating blocks of similar shows—in this case, news shows—to save money, hold viewers’ attention and increase their loyalty to their local Fox channel.

“In many of these stations, I would look at the program schedule, and I’d see a news show leading into a talk show leading into a court show leading into Cops,” said Jack Abernethy, the chief executive of the stations group and Mr. Ailes’ right-hand man. “I think broadcasters traditionally—certainly in the old days—were able to have six or seven different niches all blended together in a channel.”

But not now. These days, as the wildly successful Fox News Channel has helped to demonstrate, the way to make money in television is to be a brand, carve a niche, establish an identity. To this end, the Fox group has made three high-level hires in the last week, including Dennis Swanson, the new president of station operations, who has worked at all three major networks, most recently as the second in command at Viacom’s television-station group.

Mr. Swanson is known as a gifted local news programmer, not unlike Mr. Ailes, who took over the Fox Television Stations Group in August. The stations group—the most profitable unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire—was previously run by Mr. Murdoch’s son and heir-apparent, Lachlan, who resigned in July.

The appointment of Mr. Ailes led television folks to speculate that he might remake the Fox affiliates in the image of the cable news channel he helped create in 1996 and move into first place five years later. That doesn’t mean there will be 35 little Fox News Channels scattered in major markets around the country, Mr. Abernethy said. But there’s no reason local television can’t take a cue from cable.

As to persistent rumors that Fox and its new star anchor, Shep Smith, will be getting into the national evening-news business, Mr. Abernethy said, “Clearly, we would like to do national news and information programming to complement our local newses on our stations. But that’s something we haven’t talked about formally, although it has come up.”

He did say that they’ve kicked around the idea of doing a version of Nightline, when things were looking especially perilous for the show earlier this summer.

“When Nightline was in play,” he said, “people would call and say, ‘Hey, is there an appetite for that kind of national news?’”

The conclusion they reached is just what no one at Nightline or in any of the broadcast-network news divisions wants to hear.

“We’d look at it, you know,” Mr. Abernethy said, “and we’d see there’s just not a big demand for that right now.”