I'm ambivalent about Howard Kurtz's Hurricane of Hype article which slams the media for fearmongering before Irene's landfall.
Yes, the media outlets do seize on the crisis of the moment like a pit bull on a mailman's cuff. And yes, this crowds out badly needed coverage of other important events (cough, cough; Fall of Tripoli; cough, cough).
Furthermore, it's entirely questionable whether stationing reporters on beaches is an exercise in good journalism or good entertainment. When the reporter screams into the mic, "It's too dangerous to be out here!" the message is, "Do as I say and not as I do," which amounts to waving a red cape in the face of jackasses everywhere (as this NSFW video shows).
All that said, Kurtz seems to argue that the media hyped the storm because it was forecast to hit New York, and since New York wasn't destroyed, the hype amounted to over-hype. Kurtz:
The fact that New York, home to the nation’s top news outlets, was directly in the storm’s path clearly fed this story-on-steroids. Does anyone seriously believe the hurricane would have drawn the same level of coverage if it had been bearing down on, say, Ft. Lauderdale?
As the storm weakened, a tone of reality crept into the live reports. After heading to Battery Park, on the low-lying southern tip of Manhattan, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said: “There has been some flooding—not a huge amount of flooding, and some of the water is already starting to recede … It’s actually not bad at all.”
But there is always the prospect that something bad might happen soon. “Is Wall Street going to open tomorrow?” business correspondent Bob Pisani asked on MSNBC, the towers of the financial district behind him.
Well yes, New York is the media capital of the U.S., but it's also the biggest city in the U.S. When a natural disaster threatens the biggest city in the country, doesn't the shear number of people involved, to say nothing about the threat to the nation's financial infrastructure, demand a lot of media attention?
And the threat was real. Just two days before Irene made landfall in New York as a tropical storm she was a category three hurricane off the coast of Florida. The forecast called for a near direct hit on New York (which was accurate), and not much weakening (which turned out to be inaccurate). It takes time to evacuate highly populated, low-lying regions. They didn't have the time to wait to see whether or not their forecast would hold. I think they acted appropriately given what they knew.
All this ignores the fact that things have turned out to be quite bad outside of New York. Irene's death toll has climbed to 45. She racked up damages in the tens of billions of dollars. The flood waters have yet to recede. By any metric Irene was one of the worst storms in recent U.S. history. This is what Katrina has done--it's ruined us for A- and B+ disasters.
By their very nature the 24-hour cable news networks focus attention on "breaking news," have a regrettable tendency to gin up "breaking news" when there is none, and tend to ignore the larger context and the less dramatic, more chronic problems people face. A good example is last week's other natural disaster, the earthquake in Virginia. Media types freaked out big time over that, then promptly moved onto the next crisis.
It turns out that the earthquake needed less attention at the time, but needs more attention now. Although tens of millions of people experienced a highly unusual event, it didn't amount to a natural "disaster" for the vast majority.
And yet it is turning out to be a disaster for the locality of the epicenter and perhaps for the state of Virginia. Two schools in Louisa County were heavily damaged, perhaps beyond repair. And the nuclear power plant in Louisa was not built to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude, which raises questions about its present safety and the design of a third reactor proposed for the site. Rather than sending a reporter out for the inane "Man on the street" interview which features startling insights such as, "Wow! Everything was shaking!" media outlets need to be reporting on what's happening in Louisa and the implications for other communities.
Long story short: I'd like to see wall-to-wall coverage when its warranted, but more discernment about when its warranted. And some interest in the chronic not just acute crises we face.