Monday, September 11, 2017

Fake News and the Hurricanes

Although it's an unseemly thing to confess, I have now watched about eight hours (or more) of cable news coverage of the two hurricanes that recently made landfall in the American South, Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida.  I've watched this reporting at various times in the day both during the week and on the weekend.  The networks providing this coverage are the Weather Channel, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox.  The three cable news networks (MSNBC, CNN, Fox) approach the story with a format that is, more or less, identical -- celebrity news anchors (Anderson Cooper, for instance, or Brian Williams) manage the coverage, acting as an emcee for various meteorologists, government officials (often reached by telephone), and newscasters ostensibly exposed to the brunt of the storm. The nerve center of the broadcast is a huge set with garish maps and enormous screens -- lateral shots sometimes show the set extending for hundreds of feet in a dark cavernous space.  These sets feature brightly colored radar images of the hurricane -- bands of differing rain intensity are portrayed in different colors, purple represents the heaviest rain with a spectrum running from bright red to yellow for lighter precipitation.  The eye of the hurricane is a hollow white spot or sometimes marked with a sort of animated spinning rotor.  Meteorologists comment on the maps on which the spiraling vortex of the hurricane moves -- there is, we learned, a five minute lapse between the weather on the ground and the radar image that follows it.  Helicopter shots show evacuations or lines of people waiting for admission to shelters.  Once, the storm begins in earnest -- this means landfall -- the maps follow the hurricane's progress with intercut sequences showing newscasters exposed to the storm and commenting on its havoc.  Since the aftermath of the storm is less photogenic (unless there are very high waters), the emphasis is on the forefront of the storm and its onslaught -- not on the damage that it leaves in its wake.  The Weather Channel generally follows this same format but it is also committed to providing local forecasts and, so, generally about a third of the screen on your TV is occluded by displays of local data and weather conditions.  The Weather Channel has less sumptuous sets for its emcee newscasters -- it's studio looks like a standard TV newsroom in a mid-sized city:  it has the same graphics but they aren't displayed as huge tapestries on the walls.  The Weather Channel deploys stormchasers all around the hurricane and so they have wider coverage on the ground.  Weather Channel field newscasters seem more intrepid, or foolhardy, depending upon your point of view and report from more exposed locations. 

Harvey was primarily a rain event.  Coverage of that hurricane featured innumerable rescues of stranded people by helicopter and boat -- local citizens joined together to rescue their neighbors using shallow-bottomed fishing boats equipped with outboard motors:  this was called the "Cajun Navy."  It's hot in Houston and wading through chest-deep sewage is unpleasant and many of the victims interviewed were on the verge of nervous collapse.  Although some people drowned in Houston, the primary effect of the mud and heat and humidity was to irritate flood victims beyond their capacities for endurance.  The most noteworthy footage from this storm -- other than the surrealistic images of boats gliding past million dollar houses drowned the flood -- was an African-American woman losing her temper and hysterically denouncing a hapless CNN reporter for her ghoulish interest in the plight of those driven from their homes.  One pattern in the coverage of Harvey was that people's first impulse was to exaggerate the travails that they had endured -- many victims began their story with an account of nearly drowning but, then, inadvertently revealed that, in fact, they had called for rescue because their inundated homes were too smelly and hot and too remote from 7-11 stores still selling bottled water.  A number of victims recounted  hair-raising tales that really didn't make much sense -- or, at least, were narrated in a fashion so inept that the viewer couldn't quite figure out what was deadly peril and what mere (if awful) inconvenience.   The hurricane in Houston is noteworthy because it has produced one major work of art, Chris Ware's cover for the New Yorker for the first week of September 2017 -- the image is almost monochrome with ghostly-looking glass towers standing in the distance under lowering clouds.  The only color in the image is a two-tone (red and white) pickup truck near the foreground, sunk in the grey water up to the top of its wheels and the orange life-vests in the little rowboat equipped with an outboard that has approached the stranded truck.  Some people are standing in the truck's pick-up box, obviously distressed, a man holding a small, dirty-looking dog and a woman wearing a bandana.  A couple of children are crying.  An African-American man has reached out to take the hand of the one the people in the truck's pickup-box while a White man operates the rudder on the outboard.  In the distance, we can see three or four cars, variously submerged in the flat, featureless expanse of floodwaters, the top of a couple signs and some trees also half-swallowed up by the water -- the pickup truck and the boat cast a pale, diffuse shadow of washed-out color, a hazy reflection in the dim, grey water.  It's a striking and evocative image:  the flood seems a very lonesome place, a shadowy, watery and, ultimately, empty space enlivened only by the electric spark, an arc of altruistic energy, in the Black and White hands about to touch.

The storm in Houston followed a convincing and dramatic narrative arc.  Everyone predicted calamity.  Calamity occurred as prophesied and was, even, worse than expected.  A Dunkirk-sized flotilla of civilian vessels rushed to the rescue and people were saved.  The Florida storm, by contrast, was a weird mess that didn't make any narrative sense at all.  Irma a vast and deadly category 5 hurricane (the most intense on a scale from 1 to 5), crawled up toward Florida.  The notion was that the hurricane would make landfall with 130 mile an hour winds, destroy everything in its path, and, then, generate a monstrous storm-surge.  The storm-surge with rescues and dramatic drownings was supposed to be the climax of this narrative.  The governor of the State ordered everyone in south Florida to evacuate and, for days, we saw images of clogged freeways and huge queues at gas stations -- there wasn't enough fuel for people to make their escape from the southern third of the State and special dispensation had to be made to get light-oil tankers to gas stations.  Most of the residents of places like Miami and Homestead, Naples and Marcos Island were said to be in the path of 15 foot storm surges ("with waves on top of them") and were told that their locations were not "survivable."  Accordingly, a vast exodus took place with the refugees either fleeing inland to shelters set up for them in places like auditoriums and hockey arenas or driving (if they had fuel) to Tampa or St. Petersburg or Orlando.  But the storm's transit switched with Irma sliding up the western (gulf) coast of Florida (and not making landfall at Miami as earlier predicted.)  This left most of the network newscasters, at least, the high-powered ones, stranded in Miami and seventy miles from the real action on the west side of the peninsula.  (For half a day, MSNBC had to abandon its journalists in Miami and accept the more primitive feed from its allied Weather Channel).  Furthermore, the refugees were all fleeing directly into the path of the storm -- as it happened, the eye of the hurricane came very close to Tampa and St. Petersburg.  So, from the outset, the narrative was severely complicated by a mandatory evacuation that seemingly ordered the evacuees right into the center of the storm.  Furthermore, the coverage of the ongoing hurricane had bizarre elements.

First, no news is not news:  viewers were repeatedly told, ten to fifteen times an hour, that place like the Florida Keys were too low for anyone to survive "hunkered down" in that place.  (The separable verb form "hunkered down" was used by everyone thousands of times -- the verb describes people either too plucky or moronic to leave their homes and "hunkering down" to "ride-out" the storm; you can even "hunker down" in a boat -- some fools decided to stay on their fishing vessels while the hurricane battered them.)   We would learn that the storm was approaching one of these places, would be told of the total doom of all those "hunkered down" on the Keys or seaside, and, then, there would be no news of any kind -- the storm having traveled over the target zone and, then, up the coast in the direction of new victims.  The news networks determined that the suspense of the on-coming storm was far more dramatic than trying to discover what had happened in those communities where the storm had already passed.  Thus, the story or plot of the storm lacked any kind of climax or denouement -- we were told a bunch of people were in deadly peril, but the newscasters lost all interest in them after the storm hit the places where they were lodged and so all of the suspenseful build-up had no pay-off at all.  It was as if the Florida Keys, for instance, was just forgotten, a complete non-issue after the storm had progressed over that archipelago.  Of course, this is unsatisfactory -- the viewer is intensely interested in the places where the storm has come and gone and wants to know the scope of the devastation there:  but there was no follow-up.  (I assume imagery of those places is now on TV - but there was no follow-up during the height of the calamity.)  The fact that the media proclaimed that these people and their property was doomed and, then, lost interest in them as soon as the storm struck, demonstrated a weird kind of indifference to the human cost of the hurricane -- notwithstanding their protestations of concern, the newscasters really didn't care about these people or their communities.

Second:  retrospective revision -- the big photogenic climax of this storm was supposed to be a rapid onset flood, a storm-surge 15 feet high thundering across the landscape.  Many of the reporters positioned themselves in locations so that they could film the storm-surge when it rolled across the terrain smiting everything in its path.  One guy on MSNBC, in particular, had a clear vantage down a road to the shore about three blocks away and said that he was positioned to film the surge as it smashed ashore.  Tall production crew members were manhandled into the camera's frame to show how high the storm surge would be -- one particularly tall and burly guy was pressed into service to show that the storm surge would be "at least twice as high as he was tall."  Maps showed the entire coastline of Florida swathed in red -- the area that was projected to be wholly inundated by the storm surge.  But, for some inexplicable reason, there was no storm-surge.  So the hurricane's trajectory, the arc of its plot, as it were, had no climax at all.  After a couple of hours, the maps showing the red bands of total storm-surge destruction were inauspiciously abandoned -- and abandoned without comment.  No one mentioned the storm-surge -- it was like a fart in an elevator, an unmentionable bad odor that no one wanted to acknowledge.  Indeed, by mid-evening, when the storm surge had failed to materialize, it was as if no one had ever predicted the storm surge at all, indeed, as if no one had even ever mentioned it

Third:  fakery:  when the storm surge didn't materialize, the people broadcasting from the scene had nothing to do and were left with vast amounts of dead time.   They forlornly pointed their cameras in the direction of the sea but no tide of deadly water was visible.  It was obvious that everyone was severely disappointed, really bummed-out, by the failure of the storm-surge to appear on schedule.  (Furthermore, the damned hurricane wasn't acting like a hurricane should act -- when the eye passed overhead, it never really cleared and the rain didn't ever let up; the newscasters kept predicting that it would lighten and the sky would momentarily clear and the gale-force winds shredding the palms would cease or, at least, dramatically shift direction.  But this never happened and no one really had any explanation for why the hurricane wasn't doing its bit for the story -- I suspect it was that the hurricane was ripped up by the mountains on the north coast of Cuba and that Irma never really re-formed in any coherent manner.)  With nothing to do, the newscasters began showing us the tricks of their trade.  The shots of men and women braving the elements were mostly misleading.  Going behind the scenes, a couple of the networks revealed that their journalists were standing on the third floor of a parking garage, actually under the overhanging concrete ceiling.  A man with a microphone on a boom could push it out into the storm if the newscaster wanted to emphasize the force of the howling winds.  A grip with a light cast its beams on the newscaster so that the man or woman seemed to be standing outside in the gale -- but, in fact, the newscaster was comfortably ensconced under the concrete slabs of the parking ramp.  Using a telephone lens, and with the journalist dowsed in a little rain water, the scene could be shot in such a way as to suggest that the newscaster was actually standing in the open and taking the full brunt of the storm when, in fact, the person was quite sensibly standing under cover and sheltered from the wind and rain.  It's a trick of the trade and, apparently, universally used -- but there is something pathetically inauthentic about portraying yourself as exposed to the elements when, in fact, you are fully sheltered.  (By contrast, the Weather Channel's guy at Naples stood right in the middle of a highway, crouching in the full blast of the storm and, apparently, glorying in the 140 mph gusts of wind -- at one point, a small tornado caught this guy, whirled him around, and he had to run a dozen steps to keep from being flung into the air.  But this journalist, praised for his outstanding bravery, was also generally implied to be half-insane.) 

Some sort of complete news blackout was enforced about Trump's property at Mare y Lago.  This was also bizarre --  Trump's estate was right in the original projected track of the storm (which ultimately went to the West) but no one mentioned this at all.  I presume that security considerations were applicable and the newscasters had a gentleman's agreement not to mention or discuss the impact of the storm on Trump's compound, in effect, southern White House, but this was also exceedingly peculiar.

Donald Trump has repeatedly decried the cable news networks as trafficking in "fake news."  The term is inexact.  But Trump is right -- the news is fake in some sense because it is radically inauthentic.  Journalists cry crocodile tears about the devastation of the storm, but, in fact, they lust to see houses and people destroyed -- it's the same impulse that had me watching ten hours of storm coverage over a couple weeks.  There's a morbid interest in seeing car crashes, train wrecks, floods and hurricanes.  No one wants the storm to spare southern Florida -- except some people, maybe, who live in southern Florida.  Everyone else in the country wants to see the cities devastated and the people, not necessarily killed, but exposed to such calamity that they have to be plucked from the utmost peril and at the last moment.  The news coverage of the hurricanes was not only emotionally inauthentic it was also inept.  We were made to care intensely about certain places -- for instance the Hemingway house in Key West where the heroic curator and his staff were hunkered down -- but, then, the newscasters lost all interest in those places when they went silent after the storm had passed.  This was an indication that the newscaster's professed concern was wholly phony.  Similarly, we were told to await a dramatic and apocalyptic flood that never occurred.  When the storm-surge failed to materialize, all of the reporting on that subject simply vanished.  Between two and three-o-clock in the afternoon, we were advised that the flood surge would kill everyone and would be 15 feet deep -- this was said hundreds of times.  By 5:00 pm, the word "storm-surge" was never uttered again, the charts showing the scarlet track of devastation were quietly put away, and no one even acknowledged the error.  Again, this points to radical insincerity on the part of the newscasters.  (It's like Chris Matthews or Anderson Cooper claiming deep sorrow over Trump's lies and other bad acts, but, in fact, relishing every one of those misdeeds.)

By this morning, the storm was accounted a bust.  (Curiously, the most dramatic and apocalyptic imagery was shot in Miami after the high-buck newscasters had all left for the west coast of the peninsula -- Miami did flood and there were surreal shots of a huge, glittering financial district turned into a vast grey lagoon.)  The journalists prepared to brave the storm surge from their posts atop parking lots were down in the surf, helping to rescue a stranded dolphin.

No comments:

Post a Comment