Our media-orchestrated culture of hype and fear

This past Monday, August 31, I wrote to a friend, with whom I was planning a car trip to Long Island on Thursday:

We need to keep track of possibility of a big hurricane moving into our area in mid week, affecting the City and Long Island, though it’s probably the media indulging in their usual overdramatics.

I never watch network news but just turned it on for one minute. All three were discussing the hurricane. All three had this excessive tone of excitement, aimed at stirring up the fear and excitement of the viewers. Everything in network news is aimed at intensifying emotion, not informing the mind.

Today the AP reports:

US says goodbye to Earl as storm spins into Canada

YARMOUTH, Mass.—In the end, Hurricane Earl wasn’t even as bad as some of the no-name nor’easters that pound New England from time to time.

The storm, far less intense than feared, brushed past the Northeast and dumped heavy, wind-driven rain on Cape Cod cottages and fishing villages, but caused little damage. It left clear, blue skies in its wake, the perfect start to the Labor Day weekend.

The worst of the damage in Massachusetts amounted to a few hundred power outages, a handful of downed power lines and isolated flooding. The storm didn’t make much of an impression on the dozen people who stayed overnight at a Red Cross shelter at the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in Yarmouth on the Cape.

“Everybody was ready for something big to happen,” said Red Cross worker Harry Watling. “But when it came, most of us hardly even noticed.”

After skimming past both North Carolina and Massachusetts, Earl finally made landfall Saturday morning near Western Head, Nova Scotia.

Though the National Hurricane Center in Miami downgraded Earl to a tropical storm on Friday night, Canadian officials didn’t do so until about 12 hours later.

The storm brought heavy sheets of rain and swift gusts to Nova Scotia, toppling some trees and bringing down power lines.

Power outages were spreading across the southern part of the province and there were numerous flight cancellations. Police said the road to the popular Peggy’s Cove tourist site near Halifax was closed to keep curious storm-watchers away from the dangerous, pounding surf.

Earl had swooped into New England waters Friday night as a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph after sideswiping North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where it caused flooding but no injuries and little damage. The rain it brought to Cape Cod, Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard was more typical of the nor’easters that residents have been dealing with for generations—except this one disrupted the unofficial last weekend of summer.

Winds on Nantucket blew at around 30 mph, with gusts above 40 mph. The island got more than 2 inches of rain, while adjacent Martha’s Vineyard got more than 4 inches. Hyannis, home to Kennedy compound, got about 4.5 inches.

Click image to see Hurricane Earl photos

AP/Gerry Broome

Nantucket, the well-to-do resort island and old-time whaling port, briefly saw some localized flooding, but it cleared within hours, Nantucket Assistant Town Manager Gregg Tivnan said.

Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the damage was so minimal on Cape Cod and the islands that the agency didn’t send out assessment teams as planned Saturday morning.

“There’s nothing to assess at this point,” he said. “It wasn’t even a really bad rainstorm.”

Judge said power outages peaked at about 1,800 but were down to a few hundred early Saturday and were being quickly restored. He said the state shut down its emergency management center as of 7 a.m. Saturday.

In the hours and days before the storm, vacationers had pulled their boats from the water and canceled Labor Day weekend reservations on Nantucket. Shopkeepers boarded up their windows. Beachgoers were warned to stay out of the New England waters—or off the beach altogether—because of the danger of getting swept away by high waves.

Airlines canceled dozens of flights into New England, and Amtrak suspended train service between New York and Boston.

Massachusetts officials estimated that Cape Cod lost about 10 percent of its expected Labor Day weekend business, but were hopeful that last-minute vacationers would make up for it. Gov. Deval Patrick walked around Chatham on Saturday morning, proclaiming, “The sun is out and the Cape is open for business.”

As of 11 a.m. EDT, Earl’s center was located about 50 miles west-southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was moving northeast at 36 mph. The Canadian Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch in Nova Scotia from Port L’Hebert to Point Tupper.

Earl dulled quickly in its march up the East Coast. By midday Friday, it had dropped to a Category 1 storm—down from a fearsome Category 4 with 145 mph winds a day earlier. At 11 p.m., it was downgraded to a tropical storm.

The storm did kick up dangerous riptides up and down the coast. In New Jersey, two young men apparently died earlier this week in the rough surf caused by Earl and the hurricane before it, Danielle. Fog, wind and roiling seas also hindered the search for a boater who went missing before Earl’s arrival early Friday afternoon off Portsmouth, N.H.

Officials warned that rip currents would continue to be a concern Saturday and Sunday. With offshore seas up to 20 feet, beaches would continue to see big waves that could knock people off jetties or piers.

At Maine’s Acadia National Park, officials closed most of a road where a 7-year-old girl was swept to her death by a 20-foot wave last year while watching the swells from Bill.

As of early Saturday, there were no reports of storm damage in Maine and very little for storm watchers to see.

Bruce and Amy Hodgdon drove to the nation’s eastern tip in Lubec, Maine, hoping to see dramatic surf pounding the rocks near the candy-striped West Quoddy Head lighthouse. Once there, they didn’t bother to get out of their van.

“Pretty mild,” Bruce Hodgdon said.

“Business as usual,” Amy Hodgdon added.

[end of AP article]

What we were told in breathless tones on Monday would be the biggest hurricane in decades ended up being a rain storm. As today’s New York Times reports, there was vast disruption of travel plans, transportation, vacations canceled, all for a hyped hurricane that didn’t happen.

And please don’t misunderstand my point. I’m not saying that if there’s a possible big hurricane coming, it shouldn’t be reported. I’m saying that the tone of excitement and alarm I heard on all three TV networks on Monday evening was way overdone, and made me suspicious. I felt they were manipulating our emotions, not reporting news.

- end of initial entry -

James P. writes:

We took a day trip to Pennsylvania yesterday. My mom was convinced that somehow the hurricane was going to affect us hundreds of miles inland. She gave us hurricane updates throughout the week. Needless to say, I did not alter my plans in the least in response to this overhyped non-threat. And it was a perfect, beautiful day for the entire trip!

John P. writes:

Quite so. Our media are anti-stoical. They emphasise fear, weakness and victimhood. When they do celebrate heroism it is almost always in the context of victimisation. A soldier who has lost a leg but is resolutely committed to moving on with his life is acceptable but killing five enemy soldiers is not. We hear some but not much of those mid-westerners who calmly rebuild after a tornado but they always try to get interviews with people who are teary and shaken after their homes have been destroyed. (Please note I am certainly not blaming such people for their response only that the media prefer such cases over those who endure suffering without outward display.)

One wonders how much long-term coverage the recent earthquake in New Zealand will get in comparison with Haiti or Pakistan. New Zealander’s are pretty tough and can recover on their own. Of course, they had very few casualties due to their higher building standards and better medical services but few questions will be asked about why that might be. It’s a disaster that’s not much use to the MSM.

Ben W. writes:

LA: “All three had this excessive tone of excitement, aimed at stirring up the fear and excitement of the viewers.”

There is a psychological factor behind the media’s weather reporting.

1. The media appears to be rendering a social service, showing itself to be a part of the community. Since viewers tacitly accept what appears to be a “neutral” service (weather reporting), they are then inclined to accept the media’s political reportage also as a social service—community-based, and “neutral.” Weather and news become one package. There is a line leading from your local weather reporter to the national news announcer. From Al Roker to Matt Lauer (bantering between these two shade into the political from time to time).

It was the local television station that started using minority and gay weather reporters, insinuating them as just part of their “community service” weather reporting. After all, why could one complain that a weather reporter seemed to be quite gay in his mannerisms and tone of voice? Where was the offense—he was simply reporting the weather.

2. By melodramatizing these weather warnings, the media holds the viewer in its hands. Fearful of stormy weather, the viewer accords the media an authority he normally would not. The media translates this sense of authority into political pronouncements.

In the past five years, how many times have weather reporters made reference to the effects of “El Nino”—a subtle reminder of the changing weather patterns supposedly due to climate warming.

What in effect is the difference between a weather man warning the viewer of a physical storm and a journalist warning the viewer of a political storm? The first sets the background for the second one.

There is nothing “neutral” about the media’s weather reportage. Katrina was a major stage for the weather reporter, the news announcer and the political analyst.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 04, 2010 01:01 PM | Send

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