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PBS Shows How It Can Be Done

Last night, PBS aired an episode of "In the Balance." It focused on the prospect of a bioterrorism attack. The program was pretty scary — and that's a compliment. On the show, prominent figures gathered to discuss how they would deal with a hypothetical, but quite plausible, scenario. The episode opened with journalist Jake Tapper coming into (hypothetical) possession of an envelope containing video of four malls and a threat that the malls would soon be subjected to a bioterrorism attack. As the scenario spun out, sick people started showing up at hospitals, and dying, from plague, while officials had to decide what to do about it.

It sounds a bit like a season of "24," only with one major difference: Instead of actors mouthing melodramatic lines and the fate of the free world resting on the shoulders of one solitary man, "In the Balance" focuses on the people who have been in positions to make important decisions in a situation like this — or could be in the future. They are pushed on how they would respond to the situation, and, just as importantly, to each others' actions. The participants last night included Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Congressman Charles Rangel, former White House advisor and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, Tapper, public health officials and a number of others.

They played the parts of journalists, governors, mayors, police chiefs and even the president — a role played by former Sen. Warren Rudman. Their exchanges provided an invaluable insight into why official responses play out as they do — and gave a glimpse of the instincts, challenges and concerns of the players who decide how America responds to crisis.

It started us thinking more about how responsibly the media deals with the dangers that threaten us, both real and imagined. This is, of course, a huge topic, brought into focus by the recent Katrina disaster, and one we'll be exploring more closely in the future. But for now, it seemed an appropriate time to tip our hat to PBS for doing it right — particularly since we're now debating just how prepared we all are for such situations. You can find more information about "In the Balance," including local listings, here.