I couldn't help thinking about one of my favorite scenes from the old sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" this week. Les Nessman the uptight news anchor reads an urgent report:
"Monster lizard ravages East Coast! Mayors in five New England cities have issued emergency requests for federal disaster relief as a result of a giant lizard that descended on the East Coast last night! Officials say that this lizard, the worst since '78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communication and left many hundreds homeless!"
It's pointed out to him that the "B" is missing from the printer; it's supposed to read "blizzard." Les replies, "The wire service never lies!"
Well, this week the East Coast media managed to include the "B" in "blizzard." All that was missing was the actual blizzard.
Tuesday's New York Times headlined, "Imperfect Storm is Less of a Blow than Was Feared." NBC and MSNBC went with the tag line "Nature's Wrath" all day. Bear in mind that "wrath" is a pretty serious word. It's usually associated with the vengeful and jealous God of the Old Testament. Wrath is a punishing anger, greasing the skids for lots of smiting and the laying waste of cities.
In Washington D.C., the local news - as always - had residents so freaked out that you took your life in your hands even trying to buy toilet paper. When the "Storm of the Century" - as numerous reports described it (banking on the convenience that this century is still a toddler) - turned out to be less Nature's Fury and more the network's folly, the media stuck with it. It was if they borrowed a page from Les Nessman's playbook insisting, "The wire service never lies!"
This week's storm hype was nothing new. Across the country, local television stations are outfitting themselves with "Storm Centers" and "Storm Watch Teams," even though it's hard to "watch" a storm every day and even less helpful to do so.
Surveys regularly reveal that weather is the top ratings-getter for local news, above even crime and sports. And since local news programs are money-making enterprises, it's not surprising that the hype has a payoff for the news directors.
But the payoff for everybody else is more cynicism about the press. For example, one irate woman wrote a letter to The Washington Post this week: "I have a theory that the toilet paper manufacturers pay the weather broadcasters handsomely to make these projections, because every 15 minutes WTOP radio and the TV stations tell us to buy some eggs and toilet paper to get ready for "the storm of the century!"
But it's one thing for local news outlets to hype local weather. Because they're so close to their customers, it's more likely they will learn the right lessons from crying wolf. "Over the years we've identified three kinds of storms: nuisance, plowable and crippling," the chief meteorologist for WGAL, serving Lancaster, Pa., told the Lancaster Sunday News. "But maybe 'crippling' is a word we should reserve. Maybe from now on, we should say 'potentially serious' instead."
It's another thing when national networks become invested in hyping weather stories, something they are clearly doing more and more.
In 1999, the Weekly Standard documented this pattern. Prior to 1996, bad weather never made the Top 10 list of network evening news. In 1996, bad weather was the eighth biggest news story on network news. In 1997, it moved up to fifth. Despite the fact that weather wasn't twice as interesting, or as bad, coverage doubled in 1998. In 1999, bad-weather stories came in third, after Kosovo and the Clinton scandals and before the Columbine shooting.
There are real public-policy consequences to this trend. The more you send Dan Rather or somebody else with important hair to "witness" Hurricane Floyd, the more you endlessly hype blizzards, real or imagined. And the more you suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that the weather is getting worse, the more likely it is that politicians will make bogus issues and unneeded aid a national priority. Moreover, more important topics for discussion get crowded off the public's radar.
Indeed, one can wonder which would get more coverage from the networks these days, a monster lizard or a monster blizzard.