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Be Afraid, Be VERY Afraid

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Baseball, hotdogs and apple pie were replaced yesterday in the news by football, dirty bombs and media over-reaction. That's the conclusion drawn by CBS News transportation and homeland security correspondent Bob Orr about television's coverage of the "threats" against NFL stadiums over the past day. In this dispatch to Public Eye, Orr wonders if TV news will learn from this example:

At the risk of offending some of my television news colleagues and competitors, I think we blew it.

Here's the headline: there is not now, nor was there yesterday, any credible threat against the National Football League or any of seven stadiums hosting games this Sunday. Period.

So, we should stop the breathless, breaking and live coverage updates of a non-event.

To be accurate, there was a threat made on an English language website, posted October 12th by some joker using the name "Javness." In one fantastic paragraph Javness detailed a coordinated apocalyptic attack in which seven trucks carrying radiological bombs would be detonated simultaneously outside seven NFL stadiums.

Intelligence analysts immediately dismissed the threat as "non-credible" – a polite bureaucratic way of calling it nonsense. Authorities say they checked multiple threat streams and sources and found no evidence to corroborate the threat and no reason to believe it had any validity.

But, then a funny thing happened on the way to putting all fears to rest. In an effort to keep the NFL and various state and local law enforcement agencies "in the loop", the feds shared the questionable threat information. Homeland Security officials insist they provided full context in detailing the threat and explaining why it was dubious at best, and more likely bogus. They claim they only shared the information out of "an abundance of caution," providing a sort of FYI to their local partners. Now, cynics might argue with some validity, that the memo was also a bit of a CYA. Maybe so, but it's clear it was nothing more.

The "threat" would likely have evaporated right there had someone not leaked it to CNN. But, when word of the security advisory got out it created quite a sensation in The Situation Room. Watching the coverage, you may have thought al Qaeda was massing at goal posts from The Meadowlands to the Oakland Coliseum ready to storm the fields and strike a blow at another sacred American institution.

Not to be out done, other media outlets soon followed and the story morphed into a warped competition: "Can you top this fear-mongering?" The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the NFL all issued statements in a desperate attempt to put this terror genie back in the bottle. But, the story with all of its flaws had a life of its own.

By the time the network newscasts took the air, the NFL Threat was being reported with a healthier dose of skepticism. The government's analysis that the threat was "non-credible" actually made it into the first paragraph of most reports.

But, even then, in local and network newsrooms around the country, editors and news directors continued to debate "how to play the story." And the big morning shows were forced to carry stories explaining why the threat everyone was talking about was really no big deal. It wasn't news as much as damage control.

The real problem is this story was irresistible. It had the kind of sexy elements that get news directors to crank up team coverage -- big crowds, dirty bombs, football, and a "warning" from the government.

What it was missing was some substance and restraint from media outlets which let hype trump context. As I said, we blew it.

The real question is, "What will we do next time?"

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