Hurricane Sandy TV: CNN's Hysteria, Weather Channel Cool, Al Roker Flaps in the Wind

Sandra Endo CNN Hurricane Sandy - H 2012

A critic's take on the live scramble for information – and ratings – as the storm ravaged the Northeast.

Hurricane (now post-tropical storm) Sandy has made its major impact, though continues to drag its remains across the Northeast; similarly, the news media's frantic coverage of the storm reached its apex sometime around Monday night. Viewers lamented the loss of the historic floor of the New York Stock Exchange, which -- according to CNN's Piers Morgan via "the National Weather Service" -- was under three feet of water.  Turns out though, it wasn't true.

The Weather Channel has denied being the source of the rumor, which also shot like lightening across Twitter Monday evening. Though many have claimed that social media has been more reliable than cable (to quote @tedfrank, "A half hour of CNN watching provides less information than reading a good set of Twitter feeds for 5 minutes"), let's not forget about those innumerable photoshopped, old or misleading images that popped up everywhere on Twitter and Facebook Monday. 

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Back to cable, most of CNN's coverage was just fine, despite Morgan's gaff and a generally frantic tone (one news anchor Friday referred to the storm as being a "bomb" several times before a calm meteorologist explained the  technical term refers to an exceptionally rapid pressure fall within the storm system, a characteristic Sandy did not have). Meanwhile, Bloomberg News was both praised and chastised for being exceptionally calm. (Mayor Bloomberg himself even donned a sweater over the weekend --changing into a business suit for his press conference Monday—as a measure of soothing support.)

The Weather Channel, for whom an event like Sandy is its raison d'etre, brought in over 40 million viewers by streaming coverage live online. There can be pretenders (all of the big three morning shows had their storm coverage ready for full coverage Monday, like Good Morning America's meteorologists in their "EXtreme Team" windbreakers), but in the end The Weather Channel has the big guns: Carl Parker, Bryan Norcross and a dedicated Hurricane Center handled the storm coverage expertly, sticking to a stern but informational tone. 

Mention must also be made of the reporters sent out to actually face the storm, often in places that emergency services have told people to evacuate.Today's  Al Roker reported from a New Jersey beach along with CNN's Soledad O'Brien, and while both were pretty wind-blown (something Roker is used to, ), no one had it quite as bad as ABC's Matt Gutman and his crew, who were actually hit and overwhelmed by a rogue wave.

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There was also much talk about CNN's Ali Velshi, who was left out in the storm all day (his birthday, no less) standing in flood waters up past his knees while the network was chastised by innumerable sources, including a brief "Free Ali Velshi!" movement.

It's a curious thing, sending cameras into the midst of the storm to record reporters getting battered about, like we can't figure out the winds are strong because there are trees blowing over and traffic lights being ripped off their supports and flying down the street?  We have to see a human hang on to a street lamp sideways?  Jim Cantore, The Weather Channel's pioneering "man in the storm" has been known to show his fearless approach to hurricanes by doing pushups in their wind gusts, but is in fact his own sort of warning beacon.  As "Anne," a commenter on Entertainment Weekly's site, said, " Down here along the Gulf, a Cantore sighting is as alarming as the high-pitched wail of a NOAA weather radio.  When The Cantore arrives in your town, GET THE HELL OUT."

The hyped-up spirit of cable competition can have the negative effect of obfuscating the real news and danger with false reports (like the NYSE flood) and fear-mongering.  But no one wants another underestimation like Katrina, and it's a fine line between the informational and the hysteric. Still, the most interesting thing about all of the media onslaught from the weekend through today was more what wasn't said: where, among the the endlessly devoted coverage, was a comment on climate change?