FOR WHOSE VIEW­ING PLEA­SURE?

Hur­ri­cane TV is risky and ab­surd, and won’t change any­one’s mind about jour­nal­ists

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Melinda Hen­neberger Melinda Hen­neberger, a mem­ber of USA TO­DAY’s Board of Con­trib­u­tors, is an edi­to­rial writer and a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

Watch­ing ca­ble cov­er­age of Hur­ri­cane Irma was kind of like watch­ing one of those Sur­vivor-type re­al­ity shows where the con­tes­tants eat bugs and crawl through mud, or maybe the other way around, for our view­ing plea­sure.

In one live shot af­ter an­other, rained-on re­porters were tossed around by the wind, wor­ry­ing aloud about fly­ing street lamp cov­ers, and telling view­ers in the path of the storm not to even think of try­ing this at home.

The low point of this dis­play might have come when CNN’s Sara Sid­ner, live from Day­tona Beach, Fla., told an­chor Don Lemon, “I am not a small woman; as you know, Don, I’m a chunky girl, and it’s blow­ing me around when the gusts come re­ally re­ally hard, so this is noth­ing to play around with.”

“You are a beau­ti­ful woman, no mat­ter what size you are,’’ Lemon re­as­sured her, in much the same way con­tes­tants on Big Brother or Project Run­way cus­tom­ar­ily overdo it in buck­ing up a ri­val. “And there’s noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a lit­tle curve.”

Chunk­i­ness aside, how­ever, there is some­thing wrong with this whole spec­ta­cle.

RIT­U­ALS OF EXPIATION

Re­porters have been lash­ing them­selves to trees to show how hard the wind is blow­ing since a young Dan Rather cov­ered Hur­ri­cane Carla that way from Galve­ston, Texas, in 1961. I’ve taken some chances that weren’t strictly nec­es­sary in cov­er­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, too, like that time in San Sal­vador when I crawled un­der­neath a five-story build­ing that had been flat­tened in an earth­quake, with a res­cue worker known for his abil­ity to slip into spa­ces oth­ers couldn’t.

I nearly got trapped un­der there my­self in an af­ter­shock, and worst of all, when we did make it out, I didn’t even get to write about what I had seen in the wreck­age. The edi­tors hadn’t been ex­pect­ing the story, they said, and so hadn’t saved any space for it. (And how em­bar­rass­ing would that have been, dy­ing for a piece my news­pa­per didn’t even want?)

Yet at a time when Pres­i­dent Trump casts jour­nal­ists as “sick peo­ple,” the “en­emy of the Amer­i­can peo­ple” and Amer­i­cans who don’t like Amer­ica, th­ese tele­vised scenes of sug­gested self-im­mo­la­tion come across like rit­u­als of expiation, com­plete with plead­ing apolo­gias about why re­porters do th­ese things.

Our self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is ev­ery­where now, from that NBC com­mer­cial in which Lester Holt as­sures view­ers he’s so hu­man that he, too, wipes away the oc­ca­sional tear, to the self-cov­er­age of a news crew res­cu­ing a man dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

“The rea­son why we are out here” in the wind and rain, Sid­ner told Lemon dur­ing Irma, “is be­cause this is our job. We choose to do this and we get paid to do this, but we are here to be eyes for you, the wit­nesses for you, so that you folks at home that are wor­ry­ing about your homes, that are wor­ry­ing about your busi­ness ... don’t have to put your­self or your fam­ily in dan­ger.”

Maybe some view­ers see it that way, but oth­ers surely en­joy see­ing all those en­e­mies of the peo­ple shout­ing over the storm with wa­ter run­ning down their cheeks. Then they get the fun of ques­tion­ing the wis­dom of any­one who’d do that.

CHEAPENING RISK

The prob­lem of jus­ti­fy­ing the cov­er­age as “news you can use” is that it isn’t. It’s not true that re­porters are out in the driv­ing rain so you don’t have to be. As for jour­nal­ists get­ting blown around to prove that storm warn­ings aren’t “fake news,” I’m not sure what would stop any­one de­ter­mined to be­lieve such a thing from be­liev­ing that th­ese live shots are faked, too.

Mostly, though, I worry that all this hur­ri­cane porn need­lessly cheap­ens the very real, ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary and very much worth it risks that jour­nal­ists take all over the world ev­ery day to re­port news we couldn’t get any other way.

And yes, I wish we our­selves paid less at­ten­tion to the storm chasers catch­ing flak on Twit­ter than to some­one like Austin Tice, the Ma­rine Corps vet­eran and free­lance cor­re­spon­dent for McClatchy, The Wash­ing­ton Post and other news out­lets who was kid­napped in Syria on Aug. 14, 2012, while re­port­ing there.

Tice spent an­other birth­day in cap­tiv­ity last month, and I would be sur­prised if as many Amer­i­cans had heard of him as know all about Sid­ner’s plus-size self-de­fense.

CNN VIA AP

CNN se­nior na­tional cor­re­spon­dent Kyung Lah re­port­ing on Hur­ri­cane Irma in Mi­ami Beach on Sun­day.

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