Hurricane Hype

Nathan Brandwein


The media is (and always will be) heavily invested in stories that attract a strong audience. So much of the news, especially covered by 24-hour news networks, is greatly embellished to increase viewership. In the past, bulletins would be told the same way they was seen – nothing altered, nothing misrepresented. There was no obligation to affix each story with opinion or drama. The tone and words expressed by the anchor would generally be impartial. Gossip and personal privacy would not be exposed, as it demonstrated poor decorum. As a result, the program drew a firm boundary to distinguish real news from deception. Over the years, however, the credibility of news networks has weakened.

Let’s go back to late August when a hurricane, which developed over the warm waters of the Caribbean, moved up the eastern seaboard, targeting the largest city inAmerica–New York City. But it’s not the hurricane-turned tropical storm itself that I am scrutinizing– I’m talking about journalists and reporters that, according to various sources (such as ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh), have misinformed millions of people about the death and chaos that Hurricane Irene would bring. Was this a case of “better safe than sorry,” or the opportunity for money-making broadcasting corporations to ‘storm’ through the ratings?

On his daily radio show, Limbaugh openly accused the news media of building up Irene to “encourage chaos.” Reporters would be on the ground with their hair and jackets wafting uncontrollably, while showing puddles and repeating, “This ain’t over – the worst is yet to come.” Meanwhile, you could clearly see several clues of undisturbed civilization in the background, such as storm surfers standing serenely on the beach of theAtlantic. Was the media hoping for a disaster so that the President could save the day? Or was it simply done to increase viewership?

The hype on this story was relentless; a downgraded hurricane that that, when induced by ratings, felt like a Category 5 storm. Every network knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly – say, to cover the nonstop fighting inLibya– was to risk losing viewers. Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines even as it became apparent that the storm wasn’t as powerful as anticipated. As the Internet went thermonuclear, and the Weather Channel’s advertising rates skyrocketed, it became all about Irene, all the time. With the pressure from the media swelling up, politicians had no choice but to respond with the full mobilization of relief workers.

When the storm weakened, a tone of reality crept into the live reports. After heading to Battery Park, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said: “There has been some flooding – not a huge amount of flooding, and some of the water is already starting to recede … It’s actually not bad at all.”

Cable news was swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. Nothing useful materialized, other than a chance for the media to showcase what they excel at: exaggerating stories to the highest degree. But don’t expect the networks to downgrade their coverage the next time a tropical storm gathers strength.