A Word for Wind-Whipped TV Reporters

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Reporters who face down hurricanes for TV pictures aren't doing their audience much good... and they may give a false sense of the true danger of the storms. So says a reporter who once upon a time shouted into the gales.


I don't want to wait for any national independent bipartisan commission to declare that putting television reporters in front of cameras to get blown around by approaching storms is one of the fiascoes revealed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Such stunt storm reporting has always been a little showy and silly, but the destruction wreaked by Katrina has shown that it's also dangerous for the audience. If broadcasters want to show how strong a storm is they can lash down a camera and shoot trees snapping and light poles breaking until the camera is blown away, which is at least as vivid and more telling than watching someone in a CNN or Fox News rain slicker try to shout the utterly obvious as a storm approaches.

(Choking sound) `Wow, it's windy!'

The TV news channels do this for what I chance to call prurient reasons: the squalid little thrill of seeing handsome and composed people being blown around and get dripping wet. It is less informative and less fun to watch than mud wrestling.

I hope I've covered enough wars, riots and disasters close up to earn some standing on this subject. I have also, it is only fair to point out, done some pretty silly things on television as well as radio, including shouting so-called reports as a hurricane or snowstorm blows in.

(Choking sound) `Boy, it's windy!'

You report and learn. Years ago I spent a few days with a Chicago Fire Department crew. One night between alarms at the fire station they watched a televised Evel Knievel stunt. I think he was jumping his motorcycle across a tank filled with sharks. One fireman seemed especially upset. `We risk our lives to save lives,' he said, `but that jerk risks his for money. It's a mockery.' I began to think that about stunt storm reporting. It's also insincere. They take measured risks to show viewers the fury of storms, but mostly draw attention to themselves and tease viewers into thinking they share the true risks of the people on the ground. The anchors and reporters shown getting blown around on beaches or Bourbon Street before the storm hit land, some of whom have done some fine work in the wake of the hurricanes, aren't drinking a gallon of New Orleans toxic street water in front of cameras now, so they can show us how easy it is to get dysentery. They haven't smashed up their own homes in Atlanta or Manhattan so they can show us how heartbreaking it is to be dispossessed.

Surely, most of the people who didn't evacuate Biloxi, Gulfport, New Orleans and other places hit so hard by Hurricane Katrina stayed in their homes because they didn't have a car or worried about looters or wanted to stay with their pets. I wonder if a number stayed because they saw TV people getting blown about so playfully and got the idea that hurricanes are some kind of daring new sport, like extreme skateboarding on ESPN2. Storms aren't so-called reality shows. They're reality.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. I'd have said the right thing, but I must have used the wrong line. I been on the right trip but I must have used the wrong car. My head was in a bad place, and I wonder what it's good for. I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. My head is in a bad place but I'm having such a good time. I've been running trying to get hung up in my mind.

Backup Singers: Ooh!

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) Got to give myself a good talking-to this time. Just need a little brain salad surgery. I got to cure my insecurity. I been in the wrong place, but it must have been the right time. I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong song. I been in the right vein but it seems like a wrong arm. It happened in the right world, but it seems wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong...

SIMON: Dr. John at 18 minutes past the hour.

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