Hot Air Buffoons

Forget Hurricane Floyd. The real threat last week was the media's attempt to trump up the storm.

You may believe South Floridians were spared the wrath of Hurricane Floyd. If you watch a lot of TV news and therefore tend to think in clichés and mixed metaphors, you may be "thanking your lucky stars that we dodged this bullet." Perhaps you joined the entire South Florida "community" in "breathing a collective sigh of relief" when we were finally "out of the woods."

If so, shame on you. Where is your empathy for the people hurt most by this storm, the brave men and women of local TV news who risked their coifs to bring you live, minute-by-minute coverage of the biggest storm that never was?

Network jobs may have been on the line here. After all, Dan Rather -- then a local Houston reporter -- lashed himself to a pole in 1961 to report through the fury of Hurricane Carla, and look where it got him. But Floyd, disregarder of aspirations and crusher of dreams, didn't care. He sauntered by, doing the hurricane equivalent of dropping his pants at the reporters gathered on the beach. Microphones drooped. Hand-held anemometers weren't maxed out. L.L. Bean rain slickers didn't repel a drop. And if you looked closely enough at the satellite images, just below Floyd's big eye, you could see a hint of a smirk.

But ours is a sturdy, brave, and seemingly tireless cadre of broadcast professionals. They began reporting days before the information was relevant and continued for days after. At the height of the storm, with the winds in South Florida gusting at speeds upward of 30 mph, they warned viewers repeatedly that lives were at stake and that the shoreline was no place for average citizens. We were to remain at home, shutters drawn tight, ignoring what our eyes and ears were telling us. Yes, Floyd may have taken a northerly turn, but you don't understand. Hurricanes are sinister. They'll lollygag 100 miles from shore, luring innocents to the beach, then swoop in viciously for the kill. The message was simple and direct: Mediate the world through your TV and live, or venture out on your own and die.

The incidents of correspondents' bravery under partly cloudy skies were too legion to recount here. Several stand out in memory, however, including WFOR-TV (Channel 4)'s Ted Scouten reporting live from Hollywood beach, where the sky was "ominous" (perhaps because the sun had not yet come up) and seas were "rough" (in stark contrast to their usual glassy smoothness). Scouten had been at the beach all night, waiting to bear witness to Floyd's fury, and he wasn't going to be denied. Savage winds were on the way, as evidenced by a long, loving shot of a New Times newsrack flipped over by the menacing storm. (Hey guys, one media type to another: How about a little help?)

Coverage early last Tuesday at WTVJ (Channel 6) included the time-tested practice of anchors holding up the daily newspaper and reading the headlines, in this case "A SENSE OF DREAD," from the top of the fold in The Miami Herald. And if that headline happens to be in a paper that's your marketing-journalism "partner," all the better. No sense losing a marketing opportunity just because the storm's a dud.

As far as we can tell, WSVN (Channel 7) was first off the line with a catchy hurricane graphic, though its entry seemed oddly subdued. All that station artists could come up with was a stylized swirl surrounding the name Hurricane Floyd. Next time might we suggest something along the lines of "Terror From the Tropics," or "Skies of Death"?

Channel 7's Steve Simon was stationed at the beach in Fort Lauderdale at the terminus of Las Olas Boulevard. Periodically, when the anchors cut to Simon for updates, he thrust his wind-speed meter skyward, stood there like the Statue of Liberty for a few seconds, then read the unimpressive numbers on the air. Simon clocked one gust at a hair-spray-threatening 28 mph. "As I talk to you, the wind is kicking up," he told the concerned anchors back in the studio. "But it's nothing we can't take."

Simon did his best to warn viewers of the dangerous seas and the blatant illegality of being on the beach, which was apparently closed to all but reporters. But his warnings went unheeded. What you couldn't see on camera during Simon's live reports, and what we witnessed firsthand, were the 20 to 30 people milling about nearby, enjoying a sunny, breezy, uncrowded day on the sand.

Such behavior set off a predictable round of media tongue-clucking. "We still have to take this seriously," one dour-faced Channel 4 anchor intoned late Tuesday afternoon. "We are a little distressed that this seems to have the opposite effect."

When it finally dawned on the remote crews that Hurricane Floyd was a Georges-like dud, they scrambled to find evidence of the Big Guy's visit. Channel 7 flogged the beach-erosion issue. Early last Wednesday morning they were still at it, sending a reporter into the surf to document the heretofore ignored tragedy of sand actually moving from one place to another.

But it was Channel 7's Belkys Nerey who won the Padding the Audition Tape Award. One spot last Tuesday afternoon had the chipper Nerey interviewing folks endangering their lives by enjoying the weather on the beach in Bal Harbour. Cut away to a studio segment, the weather, a few commercials, and Nerey was back wearing a bright red rain poncho that flapped menacingly in the breeze. She gamely held on to the microphone as the wind whipped her hood around her face and three or four raindrops clouded the camera lens. This was, after all, a hurricane. And someone from the networks might be watching.

 
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