To say the weather people got it wrong recently is like saying Seahawks coach Pete Carroll simply made a bad call.
As everybody on the planet – including the Seattle players – now knows, Carroll’s inexplicable goof on the last play of the Super Bowl snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the world’s biggest game.
The difference is that Carroll’s mistake is one-and-done, having no real impact on anyone’s life. But the news media’s constant stream of ultra-hyped stories, combined with its uncanny ability to get so much wrong, is contributing to its demise, which is detrimental to everyone. About the only people who don’t seem to grasp this are those in the media itself.
In what became a massive blunder, the media recently had forecast significant snow with "storm-of-the-century" hype in many areas of the country, including the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. In doing so, they scared the bejesus out of people with "team" storm coverage dominating the news cycle for days. The fact that their predictions turned out to be a huge snow job was bad enough. But it’s how we fell for it that showed how gullible and soft we’ve become.
1) First, the media, and weather people in particular (calling them "weather forecasters" is an oxymoron), should have led off the "post-storm" news with a mea culpa: "We were wrong. Dead wrong. Not just in our predictions, but in shamelessly hyping the storm that wasn’t, severely interrupting every facet of your lives, from canceled meetings to closed schools to parents forced to take vacation days. And for that, we apologize."
But too many news directors spend more time trying to keep their jobs rather than doing them, subscribing to the herd mentality of doing the exact the same thing as their competitors. So good luck waiting for that apology, since they see nothing wrong with how they performed – which they will repeat for the next storm. The fact that ratings continue to decline, and that those left watching do so with palpable disdain, is completely lost on them.
2) In yet another example how wimpy America has become, numerous politicians fed into the hype by making unprecedented moves based on nothing but fear, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio shutting down the subway for the first time in its 110-year history due to a forecast.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, shutting down any subway – especially New York’s – wouldn’t have been an option. Americans, and their leaders, were tough, and refused to let adverse weather get the best of them. It was a badge of honor to keep things open and moving. But that hardy nature has been replaced by a softness too many readily accept, along with the insane attempt to eliminate risk – all part of the new American way of running away from problems rather than facing them. Turns out that "Stronger Than The Storm" is nothing more than a slick TV slogan after all.
3) "My children’s school was canceled today. Because of, what? Some ice?"
We have now reached the point where many school administrators are ordering delayed openings or cancellations, but not for snow or even the threat of snow. Schools are now routinely closing because slush turns to ice on some roads and sidewalks, and, no exaggeration, because it’s cold. How is that possible?
It’s winter. It gets cold. What part of that is so foreign a concept? Do they have any idea the havoc they wreak on parents who are forced to scramble to make arrangements, and the impact their actions have on jobs and vacations – jobs that ultimately pay their salaries?
And, by the way, the above quote was by President Obama in 2009 as he was dumbfounded that Washington shut down over a little bit of bad weather, unlike his native Chicago, where, at that point, schools hadn’t closed for snow in 10 years. If only he had used more of that gritty determination on other matters.
4) How many Stormtrackers, Weather Authorities, Mobile Weather Labs, Double Scans, and Mega Dopplers do we really need to see? Especially when they can’t even provide a semblance of accuracy when it matters most.
That’s a lot of different ways to say the same thing: Uninformative, irrelevant, and all too often inaccurate forecasts. It’s bad enough to be wrong, but is it really necessary for TV stations to go on the air extra early (4 a.m.) a full day before a "snow event?"
Many of us don’t know, or care, what Alberta Clippers and polar vortexes are. We can’t tell the difference between high and low pressure, and we understand that sleet, ice and freezing rain are all pretty much the same: Bad. Let’s cut to the chase: The only things we need to know are what the weather will be today, tonight, tomorrow, and, while we know it’s subject to change, what it might be over the next few days.
We don’t need "team coverage" reporters bringing us the same old pictures of salt being loaded into trucks, plows being readied, and people saying how cold it is. But most of all, we don’t need the patronizing condescension of weather folks and bureaucrats telling us to "be careful," "take it easy," "slow down," and "stay off the roads." Gee, thanks. Glad you told us, because we wouldn’t have known any of that had you not shoved it down our throats eight times over the last half hour.
Most people have common sense, and, under threat of snow or ice, will slow down or, if possible, remain indoors. There will always be morons who drive 80 miles an hour in 6 inches of snow because they think SUVs are invincible. No amount of platitudes will prevent that, so let’s stop with nanny-state commands.
5) The larger issue is a media that, instead of providing thorough, even-keeled reporting, thrives on sensationalism, playing on fears and whipping up hysteria. And it’s not just weather, but all aspects of the news.
Not surprisingly, people are tuning out. Viewers, listeners and readers have walked away, and journalists’ reputations now rank alongside those of politicians, trial lawyers and snake oil salesmen.
To be sure, there are still some outstanding news outlets doing the grunt work that makes for great journalism. But while the Internet and an explosion of additional venues have played a role in ratings and revenue declines, they are but symptoms of a greater illness. An increasingly lazy, biased and incompetent Fourth Estate has violated the cardinal rule of the Media’s Field Of Dreams: If you provide content, they will come.
That hasn’t been happening, and fans are exiting the ballpark.
It’s time for the media to reinvent itself and get back to basics, or the storm clouds threatening it will only grow more severe.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]