How TV News Is Covering the Frankenstorm

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 29 2012 5:58 PM

How TV News Is Covering the Frankenstorm

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Geraldo Rivera braces for Hurricane Sandy

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Frankenstorm came bearing down on primetime Sunday night. Don Lemon was at the desk at CNN but not yet in the right headspace for glibly quilting a persuasive verbal pattern out of the thin air. He had not yet gotten into the zen of anchoring a storm on television. He was especially excitable at the top of every hour, eager to introduce the updates of the meteorologists, hopeful that he might be able to advance the story. At 9 p.m., he introduced an update by saying, “The very latest information-that-is-coming-in now has just come in.” And at the top of every hour, Chad Myers, the meteorologist, was always a bit disappointed to let down his breathless host: “Well, um, nothing’s changed.”

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Meanwhile, on Fox News, Geraldo Rivera was live on air as he was born to be, standing outside the News Corp. building on Sixth Avenue with the wind tousling his mane and moustache nearly into a Vonnegut tangle. At the introduction, Geraldo, backed by a drum machine, took care not to downplay the threat of the “epic superstorm bearing down on a huge swath of the northeast… the wicked pre-Halloween collision… the megastorm of 2012… Sandy Frankenstorm!” He also evoked the possibility of a “tsunami-like wall of water” in the tone you might expect of Michael Bay on a DVD commentary track.

At 11, I hungered for local news. The natural disasters of the New York City media market are always best on local broadcast news. Ask any Sue Simmons apologist or Liz Cho fetishist; WNBC, WABC, and WCBS give the roundest sense of what it means to be a citizen of the tri-state area. WNYW, the Fox flagship, isn’t bad; this morning on Good Day New York, Rosanna Scotto was charming as ever when explicitly playing to the base: “Staten Island is not forgotten on this channel, just so you know.” Then there’s WPIX. The last time around, during Hurricane Irene, budget-minded PIX bootlegged a ghetto touch-screen weather map. Very evidently, it had hatched an under-rehearsed plan for the woman doing the weather to touch her green-screen in sync with a producer mimicking a zoom-in effect.

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I settled for WCBS, where Maurice DuBois and Kristine Johnson held down the desk. DuBois is steady at the helm, if a bit biblical in times of high drama. It figures. Indeed, I would describe him to non-New Yorkers as a news-reader who can make ladies plot arranged marriages beneath their church hats at A.M.E. tea parties. (During Irene, interviewing a county-level public-safety official in New Jersey, he said: “But what if a driver does find himself out on the road? What becomes of him?”)

Johnson described the storm “bearing down with a force that we have not seen in our area in generations.” That was a bit after the WCBS reporter doing the stand-up in Battery Park took a reading of the wind speed at 3.1 MPH. DuBois said, “By no means are we alone in suffering from Sandy’s wrath.” The weather guy had grim news: “Most hurricanes go on for six or eight hours… I’m gonna sit here now and I’m gonna tell you that this is going on for 36 hours.” 36 hours! That’s a lot of info drizzle. A reporter out at Coney Island found a woman who was, in lieu of evacuating, making hurricanes. As a public service, the segment producer budgeted time for the woman to read the ingredients as listed on a bottle of Myers’s Rum—“pineapple juice, orange juice, grenadine.”

Morning came and a special edition of NBC’s Today won the branding battle with ABC’s Good Morning America. NBC devised a straightforward title (“Hurricane Sandy”) and made it pop with a graphic that literally was figuratively splashy. ABC went with “Halloween Superstorm”—which was too busy a phrase and which seemed to hint that an in-studio pop concert might follow. Fox News stayed with regular programming, which is avant-garde—an unsparing self-critique in the form of extremely absurdist satire.

It’s called Fox & Friends, and this is how it teases stories: “President Obama promised to bring an end to petty politics, but his critics say that’s all we’re seeing.” And this is what it delivers: A host eliciting silly shit from John Podhoretz. Fox & Friends had a correspondent in the rain and fog at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. The correspondent saw the seawater rising to meet the boardwalk, and he tried to put the moment in context: “This boardwalk stretches, well, as far as the eye can see… but visibility is limited.”