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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irene hype debate lost on her victims

Telegraph Editorial

Well, it didn’t take long after the rain had stopped and the winds had calmed for the meteorological version of Monday morning quarterback to begin.

Namely, did the media go overboard in hyping Hurricane Irene as it spun its way up the Eastern Seaboard this past weekend?

To illustrate the pro and con positions, we turn to longtime media critic Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast and meteorologist Al Roker of NBC-TV’s “Today” show.

Kurtz: “Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon,” he wrote in his online media column Sunday. “National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations, going wall to wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest possible ranking.”

Roker: “Keep in mind, 23 people are dead,” he said Monday in a “Today” show segment that examined this very issue. “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. But you should need to know that it’s there.”

So what do you think?

Shameless hype to drive TV ratings at a time when Americans from the Carolinas to Maine were being advised to batten down the hatches and stay indoors?

Or responsible reporting about a storm that did extensive personal and property damage over a thousand-mile-long stretch of the country, even if early indications were it could have been far worse?

(For what it’s worth, an unscientific online poll conducted by TVNewser found that 39.2 percent responded the media coverage was “over-the-top” and driven by ratings; 29.6 percent felt the media had a responsibility to “prepare viewers for the worst,” and 29.9 percent said the coverage was warranted but the media overdid it with its “dramatic live shots and foreboding graphics.”)

As is usually the case when asked to pick between two extremes, the truth lies somewhere toward the middle. And we suspect the real answer to that question is driven more by a function of geography than an academic review of TV reporters screeching into microphones while being buffeted around by high winds along the shoreline.

For example, if you never lost power and spent most of Sunday sprawled out on the couch watching the “Criminal Minds” marathon on A&E, chances are you might view Irene as the most hyped event since Y2K.

But consider this:

• What if you were one of the three-dozen families in 10 states who lost loved ones to Irene’s wrath?

• What if you lived in one of the 5.5 million homes that lost power at the height of the storm, some of which may not have it restored for days or even weeks in those regions that took a direct hit?

• What if you were among those who suffered property losses that are now estimated at $7 billion, which would place Irene among the 10 costliest natural disasters in U.S. history?

• Or what if you lived in one of the more than dozen Vermont towns that are now isolated from neighboring communities because heavy rains from then-Tropical Storm Irene washed out all the connecting roads and bridges?

If so, of all the words you might associate with Irene this morning, we doubt “hype” would be among them.