CATEGORY FEH: So, why the big Irene blowup?

Posted: August 29, 2011

BY YESTERDAY morning, a new kind of tropical depression moved over Lower Manhattan - reporters who'd promised viewers that Irene would be the storm of the century, but found themselves standing in what looked and felt like a middling rainstorm.

"Wow, because this isn't so bad," CNN's Anderson Cooper was quoted telling a weather expert after learning that the peak of Irene's mild fury had passed Manhattan. "It's an annoying rain but it isn't even a sideways rain."

If Cooper - as quoted by Toby Harnden, of Britain's Daily Telegraph in a piece calling Irene "the perfect storm of hype" - seemed surprised at the lack of devastation at Battery Park, that was probably because he'd been watching too much CNN.

As the cleanup from Irene's whirlwind weekend visit continues today in Philadelphia and elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, the cyclone leaves behind a Category 5 controversy.

Were the hot winds of nonstop media hype more powerful than the actual storm?

You can certainly argue that Irene wasn't overhyped, since the storm caused at least 18 deaths, widespread flooding and power outages for more than 1 million customers. You can also make the case that more people might have died were it not for the unusually expansive evacuation orders and the media coverage that they received.

On the other hand, the nonstop TV hyping of worst-case scenarios even after more-responsible forecasters saw as early as Thursday that Irene would not be a major hurricane caused millions to expect something far, far worse - "the East Coast Katrina," or maybe the water wall from The Ten Commandments - than what showed up.

Longtime media writer Howard Kurtz, now with the Daily Beast, nailed the disparity when he said that although Irene did prove to be a Category 1 storm, causing significant disruption, it received Category 5 coverage into the weekend.

Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist with the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, which is receiving kudos for its accurate and restrained reporting, said last night that some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his team determined that it clearly was weakening.

"You want to raise awareness of the possible worst-case scenarios in order to take the storm seriously - but in order to do so some media outlets resort to hysteria and hype," Samenow said. He added that such reporting can be spun as a public service even as fear and hype drive the ultimate real goal of any for-profit venture like the Weather Channel (owned by Philadelphia's Comcast), which is higher ratings.

"The gulf between informing people and exploiting this is very, very wide," agreed Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York and a well-known media critic.

But there were lots of mixed motives here. Journalists wanted higher ratings and maybe a career-making story (remember, CNN's Cooper got a prime-time gig for his wrenching Katrina coverage in 2005) - while politicians wanted to keep citizens safe but also boost their flagging poll numbers.

After all, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who gave frequent news conferences and ordered suprisingly large evacuation zones - were both under the gun for lame responses to last winter's major blizzard (Christie had decamped to Disney World, you may recall). President Obama, who addressed the nation from FEMA headquarters and again last night, seized a chance to display command in the week when his Gallup approval rating hit a record low of 38 percent.

Of course, a cynic would say that their nonstop news conferences fed a media beast that was constantly searching for more of what Jarvis called "#stormporn" on his Twitter feed.

But is there really a danger in hurricane hype? Some experts think so.

Earlier this year, noted meteorologist James Spann argued that the ability of Doppler radar to pick up even relatively small tornadoes, and the zeal of TV news channels in reporting them, may have provoked a blase response to warnings of what proved to be a major twister killing 41 people in Alabama.

Today, some experts are wondering whether Irene media overkill will lead to similar inaction the next time a storm barrels up the Atlantic - even if it really does prove to be a major hurricane.

Jarvis said bluntly last night that his warning to many journalists is that "you've ruined your credibility. The next time when it is a Category 5 storm . . . it's going to sound like this one."

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