Tropical storm season is once more upon us, and I find my thoughts drifting to Hurricane Floyd — or, more precisely, the hullabaloo over Hurricane Floyd.
Remember? The TV tempest commenced as the actual tempest lolled hundreds of miles offshore, with no one sure just how much of a threat it posed to the U.S. mainland. This was on a Saturday. By Tuesday the looming hurricane had engulfed the nightly news on all three networks; while residents of areas in Floyd’s projected path evacuated, the other side of the highway was fairly glutted with news crews on their way in. By Wednesday morning all of the major and minor networks had their intrepid, parka-clad correspondents stationed on some desolate coastal beach, out in the gathering gale, each one trying to look more windblown than the next. When the storm stubbornly refused to devastate south Florida, Matt Lauer and his compatriots simply shifted their hype-fest further up the coast, promising a new round of devastation to the Carolinas, Georgia “and even as far north as New Jersey.”
Interviews ensued with harried shopkeepers, insurance-company representatives, public officials and emergency workers, right on up to FEMA Director James Lee Witt. There was a dour retrospective of Hurricane Hugo’s plunder of Charleston, used in sledgehammer foreshadowing of the storm at hand. All this, let us emphasize again, before Floyd had dampened anyone with so much as a single droplet.
The tele-blitz devoted to Hurricane Floyd epitomizes a regrettable trend in modern TV news’ continuing slide toward theater. In their frenzy to out-Nielsen one another on important stories — downbeat stories in particular — the networks and their cable imitators indulge in pre-news: days or even weeks of coverage of events that would surely be epochal, save for one minor detail: They haven’t happened yet. Some of them never happen at all. In this category are the hurricanes with the temerity to shift course at the last minute, thus ruining a perfectly good disaster story.
But the phenomenon isn’t confined to hurricanes, of course. It also characterizes TV’s coverage of so-called ecological threats, U.S. military campaigns, economic turbulence and almost any other catchy item TV news-meisters can spin toward the morose.
In the infotainment analogue of Gresham’s Law, bad news forces good news out of circulation; this is not, as it were, news. (Herewith, arguably, the two core axioms of our business: “If it bleeds, it leads” and “Nobody writes about the planes that land.”) What’s different today is that networks have come to prefer the mere prospect of bad news to other events that actually took place. The logic seems to be: If it isn’t bleeding quite yet, hey, why not forecast the hemorrhage to come?
We saw this with a vengeance in the case of Desert Storm. As TV mobilized for its first real-time war, we were treated to weeks of speculation about what would take place once that first sortie was launched. Many of these prognostications, you’ll recall, were dire: We would lose lots of planes. The Arab coalition would fall apart. Israel? Fuhggetaboutit; Israel was doomed. The entire region would be contaminated with bio-weapons — and God help us if we ever got involved in a ground war, which, some well-credentialed ex-Pentagon types opined, would claim thousands of U.S. lives. Then the war started. And as such things go, it was a laugher.
We’ve witnessed this same basic pattern a host of times since, one prime example being the nonstop oracular clatter over Y2K — which, ironically, may well go down as the most-hyped non-event of the previous millennium.
In many ways, network news has yet to outgrow the cheap thrill, the horror-flick tease. (You know: where the girl shrieks at the hand on her shoulder … but it’s just her boyfriend behind her.) The camera loves suspense, loves filming the heroine as she’s rescued from the railroad tracks with just seconds to spare. Fine. But is this news? Is it really news whether someone thinks a hurricane might kill thousands? For it might kill no one, either, as is usually closer to the truth. Why not wait and see what the storm does and then report it?
Interestingly enough, the networks’ love affair with Floyd appeared to wane once the damage-assessment began. One supposes that the conjured image of tsunamis crashing on-shore is rather more erotic to broadcast editors than the real-life depiction of some hapless homeowner swabbing goop out of his basement.
The result of all this is news-as-docudrama, and predictive docudrama at that: the dogged selling of the cataclysm around the corner, with scenes fictionalized for dramatic purposes. You think I overstate? Then why, according to a recent Fox News poll, do 46 percent of Americans think TV reporters are “more like actors playing reporters”?
In the end, what makes this phenomenon worse than just silly is the opportunity it presents for the wholesale injection of agenda, for allowing one’s political sensibilities to run rampant. After all, if a reporter waits till something happens, he’s stuck with trying to spin facts.
How much more advantageous it is for him to foretell the unspeakable evil that lay ahead … unless America galvanizes for swift action! (Action, needless to say, that happens to dovetail with his network’s political sensibilities.) A conspicuous example is the Silent Spring eco-journalism of the past several decades: Think industrial America is getting too big for its britches? Then find some junk scientist and give him a platform for voicing his alarmist beliefs about the air and the ozone layer. Intent on reining in the timber industry or the land developers? Then throw together some leftward-tilting report on the pillaging of the forests and wetlands. This same inclination was much on display during the past decade’s bull market, as networks scrambled to give us profiles of homeless people and other downtrodden souls who “didn’t get invited to the party.”
Perhaps the saddest part of all this is that it fuels a tendency toward nihilism that’s already way too prevalent in latter-day America. With another poll telling us that two-thirds of us now get our news from television, it’s no surprise that so many Americans view the world as a hostile, forbidding place. We end up drowning in the tides of a hurricane that never makes it to shore.
Steve Salerno is executive editor at Men’s Health Books.