There are two separate issues about coverage of Hurricane Irene. One is the tone of the coverage on the 24-hour news channels. I was watching a lot of CNN, and they lived up to every stereotype of the news network during a potential crisis, trying to tell you the people you love are in terrible danger. This is part of the nature of “ongoing” coverage of weather, of course. A weather disaster combines all the things TV news is good at: it’s live, it is experienced somewhat differently by every correspondent and looks somewhat different everywhere you cut. It’s a serious story that we viewers recognize as being relevant to our lives. So bad weather creates great TV moments, both dark (footage of terrible things happening) and light (footage of reporters caught in wind and rain). But to get to those moments, you have to fill a lot of time, and that time is filled with panic.
The other issue, though, is whether the over-wrought coverage is evidence that there was genuine over-reaction to the hurricane, or that it was being hyped into a bigger story than it really was. This is what Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast is arguing. But as Kurtz himself says, Irene was a big deal, and did a lot of real damage. And there was a very real chance that it was going to be even worse; the fact that the reporters were repeating this fact over and over doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The tone of the coverage may have been over-the-top, but in substance, it was a response to a real threat.
Kurtz ends his piece by saying “don’t expect the cable networks to downgrade their coverage the next time a tropical storm gathers strength,” but I’m not sure I see how they could have “downgraded” their coverage in this case; until the very moment Irene was downgraded, there were a number of possibilities, and the worst-case scenarios were real possibilities. Holding back on coverage because it might turn out to be not so bad is not only bad TV, it’s very un-helpful. TV is not good at moderation. When a TV news channel decides to report on things in a dry, under-hyped sort of way, the effect is often to make it sound like it’s not going to be that bad. And with weather, that’s a problem. Because it might be that bad.
What I guess I’m saying is that it’s easy to make fun of the tone and style of the cable news networks, the “weather porn” as it’s called. But breathless reporting on Irene is not like Kent Brockman trying to manufacture a story about a deadly blizzard.