Ever hear the expression, “If it bleeds, it leads?” It’s a TV news fact of life. An economic development that may financially ruin your family for years takes a back seat to a story involving violence and primal fear. Without visuals and mayhem, it isn’t news, as far as tv producers are concerned.
This truism was on full display this weekend when TV news covered Irene, “The most devastating hurricane to hit New York in a century!” Only it wasn’t. In fact, by the time it arrived here, it wasn’t even a hurricane, just a tropical storm.
In 1991, I was in the middle of Hurricane Bob, in a shared beach house in Kismet, Fire Island. We sat around and watched the newscaster scream that Fire Island MUST BE EVACUATED NOW! We talked about it, weighing the pros and cons, and decided we’d be safer staying than heading for a boat in rough waters to get back to the mainland.
We watched people marching by our window with their dogs and parrots, headed for the dock. On TV, the reporter was saying that the island was virtually deserted, with only a few idiots (including me, my friends and ironically, NBC’s Sue Simmons) not obeying the newscaster’s demand. The storm arrived, the house shook, a window broke–it was no joke, but we were ok. Those who returned a day later told a tale of the Fire Island ferry taking in water and nearly capsizing on its way over to Bayshore, Long Island.
Were we smart? Lucky? A few fairly bright young adults made a tough decision, and it happened to work out. I was reminded of this watching TV reporters interview those with homes on the Jersey shore hours before the storm was supposed to hit. With shots of a few genuine morons surfing in the background, a reporter interviewed an older couple grappling with the pros and cons of leaving, taking safety, possible looting of their home and other factors into account. The reporter mocked “You’re not actually thinking of staying, are you??”
The next shot they showed was of a menacing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, he of government-should-mind-it’s-own-business fame, demanding “Get the hell off the beach!” The couple, and some others, didn’t. They chose right. Perhaps they were lucky as well. But it was their decision.
Meanwhile, on WPIX, a demented “commentator” named Lionel launched into a hysterical rant, furious that people weren’t panicking enough. “Don’t you understand?,” Lionel bellowed. “You’re going to DIE!”
A young female reporter in a sporty baseball cap stood in the rain as a man crossed the street behind her. For all she knew, the man was walking over to help his mother. But the reporter quickly pointed to him like he was the devil incarnate, citing him as an example of a “fool” who would venture outdoors.
The next morning, Irene arrived. CNN was still calling it a hurricane, although it wasn’t. When it became undeniably clear that it would just be a passing storm in New York City, Anderson Cooper looked crestfallen.
Yes I know, better safe than sorry, and it’s good that the media warned us about the approaching storm, which could have strengthened instead of weakening. But did they overhype it? What do you think?
The result of Irene? A few locals had their homes damaged or cars flooded, but that was about it. Who benefited? Supermarkets overflowing with frantic shoppers, hardware stores selling flashlights–and TV stations, whose ratings went though the roof. Although they knew hours before that the storm was weakening, they largely kept that to themselves, and kept the panic pedal to the metal.
Because if they had told New Yorkers the truth, we might have taken a breath of relief and turned off the tv. Can’t have that. Singer/songwriter Don Henley put it best years ago, about TV thriving on what he deemed Dirty Laundry:
Now the bubble-headed bleached blond comes on at five; she can talk about a plane crash with a gleam in her eye; “It’s interesting when people die.”
She loves dirty laundry.