NEW YORK (AP) - The clouds from Hurricane Irene had barely dissipated before a chorus of critics began suggesting that television networks had gone overboard hyping the storm before and during its march up the East Coast.
For days, The Weather Channel and cable news networks reported on little else.
Ultimately, they were affected by the unpredictability that is the nature of tropical storms. Irene largely spared New York City, where much of the media attention had been focused, while causing significant damage in places where it was unanticipated: Who planned for torrents of water in Brattleboro, Vt.?
One media critic, Howard Kurtz, of The Daily Beast, called the coverage “a hurricane of hype.”
Manhattan resident Josh Hull, who left his downtown home to ride out the storm with friends on the Upper East Side, said broadcasters blew the storm way out of proportion.
“I get that news is a business, but drumming up ratings at the expense of 28 million people is beyond the pale,” Hull said. “My family, who all live in another part of the country, were worried sick all weekend while I slept right through the worst of it.”
The coverage became more a form of entertainment and less of a public resource, said Lise King, a fellow at Harvard University.
“The two agendas cannot co-exist, as one serves to lead citizens into calm action and the other is meant, by nature, to drum up emotional responses in order to keep the viewer tuning in,” she said.
Media organizations defended their coverage, in some cases angrily. NBC News anchor Brian Williams recalled talking to a meteorologist from The Weather Channel on Wednesday night and said he had “never heard him so dire.” Networks took cues from public officials, like when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered unprecedented evacuations and a full-scale public transportation shutdown in the nation’s largest city.
“There’s just an unpredictability about this stuff,” Griffin said. “Suppose someone tells you there’s a 1 in 10 chance you’re going to have a tire blow out on your car. Are you going to drive home on it, or are you going to fix the tire? You’re probably going to fix the tire.”
The perception that the storm wasn’t a bad one came because glass did not come flying down from skyscrapers onto the streets of Manhattan in high winds, he said. There’s a much different perception in flood-ravaged New Jersey towns, for instance, or in the hundreds of thousands of homes without power.
Of course, where was the image of the storm created in the first place?
The Weather Channel began casting aside its regular schedule for near-constant storm updates three days before Irene’s initial landfall on North Carolina. The network has more than 200 meteorologists on staff and worked hard to keep its coverage factual and precise, said Bob Walker, its executive vice president and general manager.
Irene wasn’t downgraded to a tropical storm until Sunday morning, when it hit New York. If it had hit the city with the force of a category 1 or 2 hurricane, the damage there would have been much greater, Walker said.