Jonathan Storm: Given Irene's windfall, newscasts exploit danger

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Laura (left), Emily, and Jim Cahill eat pizza by candlelight. Their Havertown home has not had power since Saturday. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

Man, that Hurricane Irene. So wet. So windy.

It was wet and windy in North Carolina's Kill Devil Hills, where Fox News' John Roberts got buffeted, and on Nags Head, where the Weather Channel's Mike Seidel took it on the chin - and all the way down into his soggy socks.

It was even wet and windy in Somers Point, where NBC10's Claudia Rivero told viewers: "It's getting brutal. Really, there's no other way to describe it."

Oh, yes, there is, and the Weather Channel, armageddon specialist, had it down to a science:

"Impeding doom." - Jim Cantore.

"Slow-motion disaster." - Carl Parker.

Poll

Did most media outlets overhype the storm?

"Nothing but madness." - Bryan Norcross.

Local and national, TV threw almost as many talking heads into the maelstrom over the weekend as there were gallons of rain that fell on Philadelphia. There was plenty of information, but you had to search for it among the histrionics.

Fox News Channel went live all weekend, with top anchor Shepard Smith in charge for about 10 hours. At CNN, Wolf Blitzer contributed hot air as the storm began to weaken.

Nobody seemed to notice. Rather than observing that Irene had turned more docile than expected, meteorologists and newscasters just took the discussion of sustained winds off the radar, concentrating on gusts even as they dropped below 40 m.p.h. Then came tornado warnings (with "slight chance" sometimes appearing unobtrusively on the screen).

Danger, after all, is the TV news business.

One Delaware County family reported feeling snug in the center of the house, anticipating the twister that never came. ("Better safe than sorry" swirled through the coverage.) But I'll bet I wasn't the only one semi-sleepless all Saturday night in fear that a tree would fall on my head, after the cable went out and Comcast didn't answer the phone.

The Weather Channel faces a conundrum. What to do when a hurricane threatens 100 million people, after every snowstorm and dust devil has been described as the End of the World? Inflate the threat and break out the trick-cam, shooting poor Seidel from far away to make him look like the Abominable Snowman.

To keep viewers glued, you need to entertain them, but marathon Weather Channel viewing can be hazardous to your health.

NBC10 led the local TV fascination with social media, trying to turn viewers into reporters. Tracy Davidson confusingly combined two themes: "Please send us your photos, but be very careful. We don't want you to go out."

Someone sent a video of a waterfall. "It's hard to tell exactly what it is," said a stiff Tim Lake. Now that's a newsman.

It was mostly "all hands on deck," though 6ABC's Jim Gardner didn't wander in until midday Sunday, while eight-months-pregnant Susan Barnett worked almost 12 hours Saturday at CBS3 and showed up smiling again Sunday.

Cecily Tynan, 6ABC's top weathercaster, also worked a short shift, while CBS3's Kathy Orr and NBC10's Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz appeared to work all weekend.

Schwartz repeatedly went rapturous in the face of "the little perturbations and details" of one of his namesake storms, while Tynan's absence provided marvelous opportunities for 6ABC weekend guy Adam Joseph and newbie Melissa Magee, who gets the local gold star for best combining personality and information while going easy (at least for TV news) on the scary stuff.

"Boy, you hate seeing pictures like that," NBC10's Renee Chenault-Fattah said Sunday afternoon after the station dredged up wee-hours video of a tense flood situation in West Chester.

No, we don't, but we would appreciate a little more reasonable information to go along with them.

 


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.