Presumptive nominees unite; weather forecasters worried
DENVER, Aug. 25 -- In an unprecedented show of campaign bipartisanship, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama unveiled Monday a joint plan to do away with "wishy-washy" weather forecasts on TV, radio and the Internet. Speaking together at the Democratic National Convention, the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees said that phrases such as "chance of rain," "low-to-mid 80s" and "cone of uncertainty" would be "big no-no's."
"My opponent and I disagree on nearly every important issue of our time," Obama said. "But tonight, we come together as one for a common goal -- to eliminate forecast hedging once and for all. Meteorologists have a commitment problem, and it's time they get over it."
"We've all played this guessing game long enough," added McCain. "Either it's going to rain or it's not going to rain. But to say maybe it will or maybe it won't is just unacceptable. As for temperature -- just pick a number and go with it. Americans deserve nothing less."
Keep reading for more on the McCain-Obama plan. Also, see our full forecast through the Labor Day Weekend, NatCast for tonight's game at Nationals Park, and SkinsCast for Thursday's preseason game at FedEx Field.
McCain's appearance in Denver was believed to be the first for a presumptive nominee from one party at the other party's national convention. In a surprising display of unity, the two rivals held their hands together raised in triumph after finishing their remarks. Both will break from their rigorous campaign schedules and meet again on the Senate floor in September, after Congress returns from its August recess, to introduce the so-called Confidence in Weather Forecasting Act (S. 9325).
Under the McCain-Obama plan, a first offense would merit the TV station, radio station or Web site an official warning, and a second offense would carry a yet-to-be-determined fine. On a third violation, a TV or radio station's broadcasting license could be revoked, and a Web site's domain name blocked.
The presidential candidates drew a standing ovation from delegates on the convention floor and others all around the Pepsi Center, and initial indications were that the plan could gain traction with the public at large. In a telephone poll conducted Monday night by the Washington Post and ABC News, likely voters favored tighter restrictions on "vague forecasts" by a margin of 3-to-1.
Preliminary reaction from pundits on network and cable TV news channels also was primarily positive. The issue is expected to resonate particularly well with storm-weary voters in Florida, a key battleground state. Tropical Storm Fay, which frustrated forecasters as it zig-zagged across the Sunshine State last week, dumped as much as 20 inches of rain in as little as four days, causing widespread flooding and power outages.
"I think you'll see this issue increase voter turnout in Florida for both parties, especially along the coasts where people are sick and tired of these indecisive hurricane forecasts," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "Anytime you can get rid of something like the cowardly cone of uncertainty, that's a good thing and a cause voters can really get behind."
The new forecast rules would also apply to predictions disseminated by the National Weather Service, likely meaning a complete overhaul of operations at the agency. An e-mail memo had already gone out Monday night to National Weather Service employees instructing them not to discuss the subject with reporters, and to refer all media inquiries to the agency's public affairs office.
Meanwhile, officials at NBC Universal were scrambling to assess the potential impact on the Weather Channel and its Web site, weather.com. NBC was named the winner last month of a bidding war for the Weather Channel, which it will buy for a reported $3.5 billion.
Response from the weather forecasting community to what would be the biggest change the industry has seen since the advent of Doppler radar was one of shock and dismay. The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, known for his live reports in the midst of blinding snow and landfalling hurricanes, expressed the consensus of many meteorologists.
"It's a hard pill to swallow because right now we're never wrong. Even when we say there's going to be a foot of snow, there's always that safety net where we can talk about a 30-percent chance of nothing at all," Cantore said. "What worries me most, though, is what kind of precedent this could set. I mean, where does it stop? Next thing you know they'll be judging us on our accuracy."
Al Roker, weather reporter for NBC's "Today" show, could not be reached for comment before publication. He was reportedly taping an episode of Celebrity Family Feud.
Bob Ryan, longtime chief meteorologist at the NBC affiliate in Washintgon, D.C., and one of the original pioneers of using precipitation probabilities on air, was glum upon receiving word of the McCain-Obama proposal.
"Oh crap. The jig is up," Ryan said.
Next week: A desperate ploy for publicity? Or a serious obsession with his own name? CWG's coverage of Do-I-Have-To-Decide '08 continues with an inside look at third-party candidate Ralph Nader's petition to name the rest of this season's hurricanes "Ralph" (Ralph I, Ralph II, Ralph III, etc.).