Was this weekend’s hurricane coverage all wet?

Joe Pompeo
Media Reporter
The Cutline

Now that cynical New Yorkers are grumbling about how they needlessly stocked up on Poland Spring and Clif Bars in preparation for Hurricane Irene--while other swaths of the East Coast remain powerless or under water--a discussion has begun over whether the news media's coverage of the hurricane was more severe than the storm itself.

Irene made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane on Friday night. But by the time the weakened storm system passed through the New York metropolitan area, where there were unprecedented evacuations, transit shutdowns and alarmingly dire warnings from government officials, the most significant damage left in its wake appeared to be downed trees, electrical outages and flooded basements. The anti-climactic outcome left some wondering whether the wall-to-wall, round-the-clock TV news coverage--complete with dramatic shots of correspondents braving the elements on windswept boardwalks--was all wet.

"Was this storm over hyped?" Matt Lauer asked weathermen Al Roker of NBC and the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore on the "Today" show Monday morning. Lauer noted that the storm killed more than 20 people, left another million without power and caused "misery and destruction" for many in its path. The storm caused severe flooding in parts of upstate New York and Vermont.

"It was a Category 3 storm" when it was approaching the United States, Roker replied. "There's no argument here. ... Keep in mind, 23 people are dead. If there's a bear outside your door and I see it and I don't say anything to you I'm irresponsible. It doesn't mean the bear is going to get in and get you."

A conversation on NBC's website indicates that the "Today" show's audience appears to be a bit more equivocal on the matter.  "Every hurricane is overhyped in the usa good for ratings [sic]," wrote one commenter.

The consensus among media critics is that the coverage was overdone. "The apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize," Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast wrote Sunday. "You could almost hear the air come out of the media's hot-air balloon of constant coverage when Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm. ... Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon."

Jeff Jarvis, who writes the influential blog BuzzMachine, was no less forgiving in his assessment Saturday of "the predictable and numbing repetition, alarmism, and idiocy that is TV" news. "Of course, the storm is serious but the coverage is often laughable and, some would argue, a matter of crying wolf. The inefficiency of the coverage is also boggling: crews everywhere, all shooting the same wind and water, yet saying nothing new."

"After hours on the air, the anchors and reporters, accustomed to shoehorning stories into short segments, struggled to fill the vast expanses of time," wrote The New Yorker's Ben Greenman. "The result was rambling, surreal, and sometimes darkly comic. The Weather Channel, which should have a handle on this kind of thing, warned of 'a batch of rain' in New Jersey. A CNN reporter, after showing off some nifty manipulation of sliding touch screens (Minority weather report?), spoke of 'the rain now raining in Maine.' And if Warren Buffet had a nickel for every time a reporter used the word 'buffet,' he'd be a rich man."

A CNN producer, Jonathan Wald, suggested on Twitter that the criticism of his network was foreordained: "Irene hype debate probably says more about typical press-hate than actual 'inconvenience.' "

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates made the same observation, if less sympathetically.

"The claim that 24-hour news overhyped #Irene is redundant," Coates tweeted. "You're a customer, not a mark."