After watching media mass hysteria over hurricane Sandy on CNN for a chunk of the evening I went to bed on Monday night uncertain whether New York would still be with us by breakfast time. Yo, Big Apple, glad to wake up and find you very wet but still more or less in one piece.I’m not sure about CNN’s reputation being intact in our house though. I don’t often watch the channel much these days, but even with Christiane Amanpour – she’s a veteran war correspondent and grown-up – in charge of coverage of “the monster storm from hell”, the output was completely over the top. It’s the sort of occasion when the only experts being consulted sounded like the OTT variety. And, no, little or no climatic context was provided.
By comparison, BBC1’s Six O’Clock News, which only devoted its first five minutes or so to something that hadn’t actually happened to the US eastern seaboard yet – and didn’t live up to its billing when it did, peaking a few hours later – was a model of reticence. As ever Radio 4 is both calmer and more informative. All those misleading pictures often get in the way.
I won’t be back on CNN in a hurry, which is worrying – and not just for CNN either because intense competition between rival media in search of readers and viewers leads to hype and hysteria which must put off many customers. Even those in search of lurid sensation go off in search of even dafter novelty when they tire of waiting to see if CNN’s intrepid reporter in storm-torn Atlantic City – his name was Ali – would be picked up by the wind and blown into the sea (or the “literal Niagra Falls” as one eyewitness called the ocean).
In fairness I should concede that this has been a very big storm and a pretty serious event: 13 deaths, flooding in lower Manhattan, loss of power, evacuation of hospitals and low-lying areas (200,000 New Yorkers live less than four feet above sea level), the closure (every cloud has a silver lining?) of Wall Street.
Some 60 million people have been affected in the US alone, solemnly warned by CNN that if they lost their electricity supply, food and medicine in the fridge might perish! I tell you, it’s hell out there in the freezer section.
It’s also right that the authorities should persuade those seriously at risk to take that risk seriously, not least because officialdom knows it will be blamed anyway. Be sensible, stay indoors. People who normally lead safe lives are often not good at risk assessment, they worry about the wrong thing.
As Jonathan Watts reports on the Guardian’s storm live blog, 69 people died when Sandy devastated the Caribbean, and Haiti was badly hit as usual. Alas, there are few global media corporations or foreign correspondents in Port-au-Prince, less medicine in the fridge too, so it made less of an impact. But Sandy has already been around for 10 days.
We all understand how these things work. Extreme weather makes for great TV pictures. There’s even a dedicated weather channel out there somewhere, where you can watch hurricanes or snow storms all day if you like. The same pictures of storm-lashed harbours (or if it were riots then burning buildings) come round time after time. Only the dramatic pics are shown. One ends up unsure how serious a crisis has really been.
Not everyone sounded as if the end of the world was at hand. Bloomberg News seemed calmer. Mayor Mike Bloomberg (they are related) of New York was a model of calm, as Rudolph Giuliani was in New York’s real trauma, the 9/11 attacks – a benchmark event that should have helped provide the city with perspective.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both cancelled campaign events. The president returned to the White House and said all the right things. But he looked tired and sounded disengaged. Obama doesn’t do empathy well. He was almost as hopeless as his Republican challenger safely above high tide in the mid-west.
Since Romney wants to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and leave things to individual states, there may be some advantage for Obama here. He still believes federal government can make a difference. One word – Katrina – the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 when warnings were ignored at local, state and federal level, suggests they need better government to take strategic precautions.
Talking of which, the one phrase I didn’t once hear on CNN last night – or on the BBC – was “climate change”. In other words, context, the big picture. Climate, not mere weather. Was the scale of hurricane Sandy the product of a warming planet? Some experts say it’s a contributory factor.
I don’t know the answer. That’s way beyond my pay scale. What the telly boffins were saying was that its 1,000-mile size was the result of three specific weather events colliding: a traditional Caribbean hurricane, cold air coming down from the north and a high pressure system whose contribution the A-level geographer in me didn’t quite understand.
Consulting Google College (“we never close”) this morning, I quickly found this sensibly tentative analysis, which highlights warmer seas and melting icecaps. Both point to more flooding of port cities located by the sea, as port cities tend to be.
There was one passing reference to a thinner icecap at the north pole which I caught on CNN last night. Perhaps the channel carried more when the excitement of the moment had passed. I hope so, not least because New York – the second most exposed US port after New Orleans – has apparently been talking about anti-surge barriers for years, but not acted.
London of course has had its Thames Barrier, second in size only to the Dutch big boy, since 1984. It was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 90s, and 75 times in the first decade of our century. Those wimpy Europeans do get some things right.
So Americans should ponder, though I’m not sure if enough of them will do. I heard a US expert this morning – on the radio of course – saying that the eastern seaboard had experienced a series of extreme weather events these past 15 months. Hurricane Irene last year, a savage October snowfall – “these are things we have not seen before in recorded history”.
Quite so. Now I must try and find out what happened to CNN’s on the spot reporter in Atlantic City. When I last saw Ali he was no longer staggering around a windswept street as if he expected to be whisked into the air. I’ve reported a US hurricane from a deserted Corpus Christi in Texas. My hurricane was also a media anticlimax – but they’re scary.
The city looked calmer and Ali’s authority was undermined by three kids dancing in the street behind him. It all looked a bit showbiz, and safely at home behind the Thames Barrier we unkindly wondered whether CNN’s commercial sponsors would have asked for their money back if Ali had been swept away during an ad break.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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