One of the strange impulses of modern life is the irresistible–to me, anyway–urge to turn on the TV and the laptop and spend all day watching coverage of a weather disaster that you are already in the middle of experiencing. I spent yesterday in Brooklyn watching the same hurricane that was blowing outside my window, for practical reasons–to see the storm track, get reports of damage in the city–but also, I think, for the comforting illusion that knowing everything possible about the storm meant that I was in control. If Sandy’s data and destruction could be confined on the rectangles of my TV screen and iPad, then it was, in some way, under control.
It wasn’t, of course, even in the control rooms. The coverage of Sandy, which crowded out primetime programming in affected areas, was riveting and impressive, but also chaotic the way a breaking story like this inevitably is: lots of useful information and some misinformation, bravery and stunts.
In particular, Sandy proved that the old bad-weather standby, sticking a reporter in the middle of a hurricane to get blown around like a dancing air-balloon man in front of a car wash, never gets old. CNN had several reporters in the field, but the piñata of the day was financial reporter Ali Velshi, who was plopped down in a windblown Atlantic City intersection and stayed there all day: as the winds rose, as it grew dark, finally as he was in rushing water up to his thighs. If he is not still there a month from now, interviewing economists about the latest job figures, I will be sorely disappointed.
Why do it? Velshi offered an explanation on air: “People are saying why are you out there? Well, one is we’re trying yo show people what happens, but number two, we’ve had a bit of experience with this so we know how to seek shelter.” Number three: the other guy is doing it: on The Weather Channel, Al Roker was getting put through the spin cycle on the beach of Point Pleasant, NJ, and hurricane vet Jim Cantore was doing double duty for NBC.
This was one of those days, though, that the collision of Mother Nature and the manmade created the best visual drama of all. In midafternoon, a construction crane collapsed 90 stories above Manhattan, and several channels carried live footage of its broken arm dangling in the sky. The crane didn’t fall, but it was as good a symbol as any of the tenuous feelings those of us in the storm zone were going through.
Just after sundown, Sandy made landfall, and along with the winds and rain came a torrent of information—and misinformation. To the networks’ credit, there was a lot to process at once, and local New York City TV in particular did a good job getting images out quickly; WCBS early on got a disturbing video feed of water rushing in to the Battery Tunnel, while NY1 fanned out around New York’s boroughs and did strong, long phone interviews with local officials. At the same time, amateur and professional reporters on social media were feeding the beast; some of the most striking images I saw were not on TV but posted on Instagram, such as a stunning shot of half of Manhattan engulfed in darkness.
But as old and new media meshed, some rumors and bad reports got through the seawall as well. There was a dubious report of flooding on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that was repeated both on CNN and the Weather Channel. There were horrific Twitter reports of fires that, fortunately, were either not real or not as severe as reported. There was a report, again incorrect, of Con Edison workers trapped in a substation. There were enough faked photos of sharks in floodwaters to fill a National Geographic special.
Not all TV news was all Sandy, all the time. There’s still a Presidential election in a week, and in and around hurricane coverage, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was covering swing state polls and Fox News’ Sean Hannity was still banging the drum on Benghazi. Elsewhere, New York-based shows were cancelled left and right: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took the night off, and Jimmy Kimmel, who had planned a taping in Brooklyn, had to cancel the first night.
One New Yorker who didn’t cancel is the host who’s always been there for his adopted city: David Letterman, who did a show in front of an empty Ed Sullivan Theater, and joked that strippers at a nearby club had been securely lashed to the poles. For those of us lucky enough to still have power, there may be comfort in immersing yourself all day in disaster coverage. But thank God one guy understood that at times like this, you can also use a little dry humor.