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 may 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.
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,” “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 that he’s so human that he, too, wipes away the occasional tear, to the self-coverage of a news crew that rescued 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.
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. And to the point that journalists have to get blown around so viewers know 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 weather porn 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.
He spent another birthday in captivity last month, and I’d be surprised if as many Americans had heard of him as know all about Sidner’s plus-size self-defense.