Hurricanes are the Super Bowls of the weather world. When a tropical storm is spotted there is a week-long build-up of suspense: how powerful will it become? Where will it land? How many boats will it toss onto dry land? Everyone from expert meteorologists to budding media lackeys are deployed into the storms gaping maw to give you moment-by-moment coverage.
Last night I watched a gripping piece on CNN, where a reporter from New Orleans was literally phoning in his observations on hurricane Katrina, via video phone. The video and sound were terrible. You couldn't see anything behind him because all the power was out. Nothing was happening because the storm was long-gone. He might as well have been reporting from his darkened basement. But that was news. It sure looked good: a guy standing in his rain coat, the grainy video, the frantic tone in his voice. Until I realized: nothing was happening. He had no purpose to be on his video phone right that second. He wasn't giving us any news other than "it's sure dark out here, and a mess." Wow.
Of course he was competing with Headline News' report: Day 89 of the Natalie Holloway Mystery. They were busy talking about her, while showing her flag corps performance from high-school. What relevance the flag corps performance has is also part of this convoluted mystery.
However, back to Katrina, I think it's amazing that after all the media coverage preceding this hurricane, as many as 80 people may be dead. Surely they knew it was coming. This was not a tsunami without warning. This was a hurricane that hit Florida, rolled into the Gulf of Mexico, gained strength, turned north, and struck almost exactly where experts said it was going to. All of this unfolded on 24-hour news, over the course of the last week. Not to mention that hurricanes are hardly rare to this region.
I'm going to speculate that a lot of this was due to Katrina being a monster storm, and there will always be those crazy few who refuse to leave their homes come hell, high-water, or both. But, I can't help but also think that our current environment of media and news saturation seems to render the average person paralyzed to decipher what is actually meaningful. When "Hurricane Katrina" is covered like a championship football game rather than a life-threatening, property destroying force of nature, how is the average TV junkie supposed to be alarmed? It seems like more and more of life is becoming abstract rather than real.
In the Midwest, I've heard similar discussions about tornado warnings. We're no strangers to thunderstorms and during some months tornado watches or warnings seem to occur almost every day. But, first of all, how many people even know the difference between a watch and a warning? And secondly, when these alerts are flashed on our screen every day, and we live to tell the tale the next morning, how seriously do we begin to take them? There are so many other forces vying for our attention at every turn, our brain has to try to make sense of all this input. What do we take seriously and what is just hype?
We obviously have a hard time discerning the truth when a total failure is re-elected to the highest office in the world. Yes, he has been a perfect storm at home and abroad, a venerable hurricane of bad judgment. This was after he took the media by the hand and told them he was a uniter and not a divider; that he was not interested in nation-building; that a certain Arab leader my have WMDs in his remorseless hands; that we would be greeted as liberators in his country once we took him out. Where was the media over the last five years of this nonsense?
The problem is not that the media can't alert us. It's alerting us all the time. We can get worked up over non-existent WMDs in Iraq, anthrax scares, hurricanes, and Super Bowls, but we're not very good at concluding what is really true and what isn't. We have access to all this news and we seem to be further away from what is real than ever before.
Does the media have an obligation to cut through its own constant hyperbole and try itself to figure out what is newsworthy? I suppose yes and no. In a large sense, they are just delivering a product. People, for some reason, seem to like watching John Kruk on ESPN complain that the squeeze bunt is a lost art. People will make time to watch all kinds of nonsense, but not to try to figure out what is a real threat and when they are being lied to.
In the case of a hurricane, it should be pretty obvious. In a more intellectual exercise like should we have blindly accepted the word of the President? The media should probably have stopped phoning its reports in and actually discovered that Hans Blix, France, and even Saddam were in fact right when they claimed Iraq had no WMDs. Maybe that's expecting too much from the media, who are simply delivering a product like McDonald's or Coke. Maybe people should stop relying on CNN for truth, Disney to raise their kids, McDonald's to turn them into healthy adults, and tough politicians to save them from evil. Maybe people better start thinking for themselves.