Hurricane Hysteria: Don’t Believe the Hype

TV journalism and politicians failed the public with Irene coverage

At this very second, I’m writing from the darkness of an underground bunker, extremely weakened from not eating or drinking since Friday when looters ransacked my house and took all the food and water after every supermarket shelf on the East Coast was cleaned out by the panicked hordes. The battery level on my iPad is in the red low range, meaning it’s about to shut off. And there’ll be no recharging because there’s a crippling power outage throughout the entire region. Therefore, I must write quickly, before my battery—and I—die.

Just kidding! I’m fine (to the disappointment of some of you out there). There’s no widespread Hurricane Irene-created catastrophe. It was all hype, designed by the media to increase advertising revenues and exploited by the politicians to get re-elected. The media—the real bad guys here—and the politicians, who are their partners in crime, know that fear-based hype is good. It gets money for one and votes for the other.

In fact, the advertising rates of the Weather Channel along with other TV and radio stations went through the roof during the past four days. And local, state and federal officials piled on. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg basically set up his own TV studio to provide nonstop updated reports. I wonder if that had anything to do with his potentially career-ending decision this past winter to keep the snow removal trucks on the racks and the waist-high snow on the streets. NJ Governor Chris Christie rang the alarm by yelling, “Get the hell off the beach” and by exaggeratedly claiming that his state could suffer damages in the tens of billions of dollars. I wonder if that had anything to do with the political firestorm that resulted from his trip to sunny Florida when, during the three-foot snowfall last December 26th, he hung out with Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy at Disney World. President Barack Obama had his staff issue no less than 25 weather-related press releases on Saturday alone. I wonder if that hands-on diligence had anything to do with Michele Bachmann’s increased poll numbers.

Before I go on, I must say this and must say it in all seriousness: My sincerest condolences go out to the families and friends of the 40 human beings who (by the most recent official count) tragically lost their lives in 11 states, to those who suffered public and private property damage estimated at $7 billion nationwide, to the millions who were and still are without electricity, and also to the tens of thousands whose homes and businesses remain in jeopardy of flooding.

Although I can’t blame the media directly for such loss of life and property, I can blame them for the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome. Because the media constantly scare the public with very-worst-case scenarios, many people stop adhering to those warnings. This very thing happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama last April when at least 41 of the many persons who died were killed after they decided to disregard constant tornado warnings. In fact, meteorologist James Spann of the local ABC station blamed a large number of Tuscaloosa deaths on numerous previously hyped false alarms.

Even though many people were well-advised to respect Hurricane Irene by staying home, they were not well-served by being held as a captive audience at home and then being bombarded 24-7 with the very-worst-case scenario of death and destruction in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, DC, New York and elsewhere. This caused a panic, led to selfishness, instigated greed, and caused nearly every neighborhood and chain store to run out of batteries, water and food. Lucas Shaw, media reporter at The Wrap, insightfully asked, “While news outlets must inform the public—it is their job after all—how many stories can one tell about a single, ever-weakening hurricane?”

Hurricane Irene never did have and never could have had the devastating power of a tsunami. Quite the contrary, it was a Category 1 Hurricane, which means it was the least serious of five categories. Accordingly, Irene, at its worst, could generally cause no widespread structural damage (but could cause problems near shore and other natural waterway points and with unanchored property). Unlike tsunamis, tornadoes and the like, a Category 1 Hurricane travels in the range of just 74-95 mph. Serious? Yes. Apocalyptic? No. Moreover, Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a mere tropical storm, which means it produced winds of as little as 39 mph and never more than 73 mph.

Apparently nothing else newsworthy happened during the past four days. No major stock market increases or decreases. No significant job losses or gains. No controversial presidential candidate politicking. No urban or rural crime sprees. No terrorist bombings anywhere. No sightings of Moammar Gadhafi anywhere. No revolutionary developments in Syria. No long-term famine and mass starvation in and around Somalia.

Public Enemy put it well when they rhymed in Don’t Believe the Hype:

I refuse to blow a fuse
They even had it on the news
… false media, we don’t need it, do we?
It’s fake, that’s what it be to ya, dig me

And conservative news commentator George Will, who has a home on South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast—yes, that George Will!—agreed with Public Enemy when he spit these verses, I mean, when he enunciated these words:

“Whatever else you want to say about journalism, it shouldn’t subtract from the nation’s understanding and it certainly shouldn’t contribute to the manufacture of synthetic hysteria that is so much a part of modern life.”

To truly appreciate the ridiculousness of the media’s crazed hype, check out Gawker’s “The 10 Best Videos of Reporters Being Blown Away by Hurricanes.” It’s an absolutely hilarious blow job, pardon the pun, for these meteorological Edward R. Murrows hard at work. Forget those clowns and remember: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blows.”