- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

Intrepid television journalists such as Anderson Cooper, Jack Cafferty, Chris Wallace and Brian Williams have made it clear in recent weeks how personally disgusted they are with politicians and government institutions for their sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.

One possibility seems not to have occurred to them: Their own institution — television news, especially 24-hour cable — might have been at least partially responsible for the fact that some New Orleanians chose not to evacuate before the hurricane made landfall.

Let me explain. TV news outfits have been hyping hurricanes — and other severe weather events (think of the “blizzards” that turned out to be light dustings but still closed your local schools) — for so many years, it’s possible their coverage in the run-up to Hurricane Katrina actually depressed evacuation rates.

“Hurricanes became a media obsession in the mid-‘90s, when there were two consecutive above-average years for Atlantic storms,” writer Gregg Easterbrook noted on the New Republic’s Web site in 2003, when Hurricane Isabel was being touted as a doomsday affair. “But those years stood out,” he explained, “mainly because most of the period from 1964 to 1994 was below the historic average for hurricane activity; commentators had forgotten how frequently hurricanes can occur.”

Oh, they likely hadn’t forgotten. Not in the then-burgeoning universe of 24-hour television news, where child abductions, shark attacks and, of course, the weather would become manic-obsessive fare.

Suppliers of all-day news have a lot of airtime to fill, and when they send a correspondent in his hooded windbreaker to report live from some soon-to-be-buffeted beach, by golly, they’re going to get their money’s worth.

Media observers are hesitant to finger TV journos for the reluctance of some Gulf Coast residents to evacuate their homes — there are other compelling explanations, including poverty — but they say it certainly could have been a factor.

“The predominant mother tongue of cable news is hyperbole, so they don’t even have to shift gears when a true disaster occurs,” says Matthew T. Felling, spokesman for the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Mr. Felling says viewers are indirectly to blame for the quality of news coverage. “If the audience wanted context and proportion, the news channels would look a lot more like PBS and not ‘Fear Factor,’” he says.

While the crying-wolf effect of previous hurricane hyperbole would be very hard to quantify, some anecdotal evidence has emerged.

“There have been a number of people who have said, ‘We’ve heard it all before,’” says Michael Chapman, director of communications for the conservative watchdog Media Research Center, referring to Gulf Coast residents who have spoken to journalists about having lived through other hurricanes that passed over the region.

“You can’t underestimate the power and influence of media,” he says. “Whenever they get on their agenda — whether it’s politics or weather — it does have an influence.”

Amos Gelb, a journalism professor at American University, points out that scores of New Orleanians did heed warnings issued by local and state governments and amplified by the media. Just before Katrina struck, the 45-minute drive from the Big Easy to the state capital of Baton Rouge took 41/2 hours, such was the crush of evacuees fleeing the city, Mr. Gelb notes.

Still, he says, “We’ve all sort of become blase about hurricanes,” thanks to media hype.

For his part, Mr. Gelb doesn’t fault TV journalists for overdramatizing Hurricane Katrina, its prelude or its repercussions. He says it was unavoidable given how easily the disaster lends itself to sensational TV coverage. “It’s immediate,” he says. “It’s live. It’s pictures.”

He posits a difference between “organic sensationalism” and “synthetic sensationalism.” The latter is the province of paparazzi and celebrities; the former is Tiananmen Square and September 11, events that are unavoidably sensational but of the utmost importance.

As the body count trails mercifully below the five figures prophesied by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and scenarios of festering water-borne diseases prove spectral, Hurricane Katrina may or may not turn out to have had some “synthetic sensationalism” layered on top of its “organic sensationalism.”

But Mr. Gelb wonders: What next? How does the mainstream media follow up Katrina? “This is great journalism, but it is lousy for the business of journalism,” he says.

He means: How will networks and cable channels formulate pitches to advertisers based on the spike in ratings Katrina has provided? They can’t, obviously, guarantee another natural disaster, no matter how much they hype its potential.

If columnist Jim Pinkerton is right, the mainstream media may be too giddy right now to be concerned about the future, as Katrina has furnished them a cudgel with which to swat (conservative-leaning) new media such as talk radio and blogs into submission. Even the Bush-friendly Fox News Channel, Mr. Pinkerton says, was in “high dudgeon” over Katrina (which may be a function of its ratings imperative trumping its politics).

“Yes, the blogosphere could take down Dan Rather, but that was a dry and slow process of threshing out real and counterfeit typewriter fonts, military phraseology, and antique zip codes,” he wrote in a piece for TechCentralStation.com. “By contrast, Katrina is wetly overwhelming.”

Indeed, the most unseemly thing about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina has been the transparent attempt to bank-shot critical coverage of the federal government’s response to Katrina onto an intensely disliked wartime president.

For the media’s Bush skeptics, Katrina was an arranged marriage of politics and suffering. So what if a few unlucky souls grew accustomed to shrugging off the hype?

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