The Austin Chronicle

What If ... Media Terrorists Landed on Sixth Street?

By Kevin Brass, February 4, 2005, News

Dozens of people are keeling over in a bar. The police are setting up a protective perimeter. Jenna Bush is puking in the bathroom. News teams are rushing to the scene, ready to go live.

Sure, it sounds like any other date night on Sixth Street. But this was the hypothetical scenario of a terrorist attack on Austin presented last Thursday to a panel of emergency management officials and local media executives, as part of a seminar titled News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis.

Organized by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, the National Academies, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the exercise was reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live skit, "What if ...?" – as in, "What if ... Superman Was a Nazi?" Panelists were asked how they would respond, minute-by-minute, if people began passing out from a mysterious gas in a Sixth Street bar, and – just maybe – one of the Bush twins were in the bar.

Faced with this unfolding tale, the emergency management officials said, "Gosh darn, they would work closely with the media to maintain the flow of accurate information to the public." And the media executives, including Austin American-Statesman Metro Editor Debbie Hiott and KVUE-TV News Director Frank Volpicella, said they would never report rumors or rush unverified reports onto the air – drawing only a few snickers from the crowd of about 200 law enforcement, government, and newsroom staffers.

Here at the Chronicle – in support of the seminar's noble goal of fostering "a better understanding" between news organizations and government agencies – we thought it might be helpful to ponder another possible scenario of how such events might unfold. We invite our readers to judge – based on their own experience of local media – which is the most true-to-media version. Here we go:

10:15pm: A panicked UT student runs out onto Sixth Street, screaming that bodies are piling up in the bar. Austin police officers on horseback use Tasers and newly purchased Model 43B – "The Pummeler" – billy clubs to subdue him.

10:18: After more reports of a strange "pool-like" smell and dozens of people passed out in the bar, police notify state emergency services of a potential terrorist incident. Hearing the report on the scanner, KXAN-TV's new weekend reporter, recently hired from Enid, Okla., misreads her map and rushes to Georgetown.

10:22: A KVUE-TV reporter who happened to be in a nearby bar researching rare tequilas calls into the newsroom after he overhears a police officer talking about "dozens of dead bodies." KVUE's weekend producer, busy negotiating for an exclusive interview with golfer Ben Crenshaw, puts him on hold.

10:32: Undercover APD officers report the odor may be marijuana. Forty-three members of the Special Mary Jane Tactical Assault Team rush into the bar, only to succumb to the fumes. News8 interrupts a special "To Your Health" report on dental floss to report that law enforcement sources confirm a gas station is under attack by terrorists "somewhere downtown."

10:34: Travis County's special terrorism task force invokes a little-known "Anti-Terror Peace Amendment" and begins strip-searching all "questionable individuals." A bartender tells emergency personnel that Jenna Bush may have been in the bar, prompting federal officials to call in the Strategic Air Command. Fox-7 warns viewers to stay away from Downtown, but assures them the terrorist attack will not affect the Morning Show's scheduled segment on shrubbery care.

10:36: The KVUE reporter on the scene, reporting live, announces that terrorists are pumping nerve gas into Austin bars and there are "unconfirmed reports of thousands dead."

10:53: An Entertainment Tonight team of reporters parachute onto the roof of the bar after a stringer mentions that Brad and Jennifer once shared beer nuts there. The White House announces that Jenna Bush may have been in the bar "tutoring Bible students." KVUE begins nonstop coverage of "Beer Hall of Horror."

11:01: KEYE airs an exclusive interview with a Walgreen's assistant manager, billed as a "chemical expert." Moving responsibly to quash rumors, News8 assures viewers that there is no official confirmation of reports that a 10-foot, bio-engineered rodent is wandering Sixth Street feeding on human blood.

11:02: KXAN begins offering traffic and weather reports every three minutes from Chopper 36, "hovering above ground zero." In a hastily called press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield declares, "Our prayers are with poor Jenna, and we will get the heathen Iranian ragheads who committed this horrible act."

11:03: NPR affiliate KUT-FM convenes a panel of UT professors to discuss the history and socio-political ramifications of the term "ragheads."

11:08: In emergency session, City Council meets to create a special business enhance-ment zone on Sixth Street, offering bar owners affected by the terrorist incident tax breaks and free parking at Ice Bats games.

11:12: KXAN airs an interview with a UT student who says, "Jenna Bush once gave me a hummer." KEYE unveils a new ad campaign touting the station as "Your Home for Terror Coverage."

11:15: From an underground bunker "somewhere near Lubbock" (designated as the location "least likely to be attacked by terrorists" in a $3.5 million UT study), Gov. Rick Perry releases an audiotape assuring the state that he is safe and not gay.

11:17: Fox breaks into local programming for a documentary titled Jenna: A Legacy Tarnished, hosted by Paris Hilton.

11:23: Chemical experts determine the gas is chlorine, left in the club by a disgruntled Bastrop pool boy. The Department of Homeland Security launches an investigation of the pool boy's ties to Iranian mullahs.

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