Was Irene overhyped? The answer may depend ultimately on where you live. If you live near Wall Street or inside the Beltway, where the denizens suffered few serious consequences (funny how that always happens), then the answer is probably "Yes." If you live in a small New England mill town already pummelled by Hurricane Death of U.S. Manufacturing, and are now watching cars float past (see below) then the answer is probably "No."
Unlike Michele Bachmann, I don't know if Irene was sent by a higher power -- probably not -- but she (Irene, I mean, not Michele) has an amazing sense of metaphor, saving Wall Street and wiping out Main Street, yet again.
On the other hand, the nonstop TV hyping of worst-case scenarios even after more-responsible forecasters saw as early as Thursday that Irene would not be a major hurricane caused millions to expect something far, far worse - "the East Coast Katrina," or maybe the water wall from The Ten Commandments - than what showed up.
Longtime media writer Howard Kurtz, now with the Daily Beast, nailed the disparity when he said that although Irene did prove to be a Category 1 storm, causing significant disruption, it received Category 5 coverage into the weekend.
Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist with the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, which is receiving kudos for its accurate and restrained reporting, said last night that some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his team determined that it clearly was weakening.
"You want to raise awareness of the possible worst-case scenarios in order to take the storm seriously - but in order to do so some media outlets resort to hysteria and hype," Samenow said. He added that such reporting can be spun as a public service even as fear and hype drive the ultimate real goal of any for-profit venture like the Weather Channel (owned by Philadelphia's Comcast), which is higher ratings.
Look, it's good that the media kept the public informed about evacuations, transit closings, etc. On the other hand, most news outlets also continued to hype the notion that Irene could strike our region as a major hurricane (that would be Cat 3 or higher) when on-the-ball meteorologists had already seen the storm weakening and the evidence that it wouldn't regain strength. That was irresponsible -- and also it seems like better weather journalism might have said more about the threat of inland flooding in places like Vermont and less about Jersey Shore damage -- once it became clear that Irene's dangers were its size and its amount of moisture, and not high winds. Plus, most hurricane journalism is just plain lousy -- the same repetitive information on every channel. To the extent I tiurned on the tube Saturday, it was to Fox. Not Fox News Channel or Channel 29 -- please. It was the Fox Soccer Channel, the only place to avoid hurricane pornography.