By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Is it really a hurricane, or even just a "tropical depression," unless a TV reporter in a hooded windbreaker is flopping around in the wind and rain like a landed flounder?
Is it really a weather story at all unless the TV people can go outside in the storm and, while risking bodily injury, warn viewers that they shouldn't go outside in the storm and risk bodily injury?
If so, Hurricane Gustav was a real storm: All of the cliches and hyper-theatrical tropes of TV hurricane coverage were at Category 5 yesterday.
TV correspondents bellowing while taking facefuls of driving rain? Got it. Reporters hunched and squinting in the teeth of hurricane-force winds? Got that, too. Reporters dressed in the standard uniform of the intrepid weather correspondent -- colorful-but-flimsy network-logo jacket and ball cap -- to dramatize the effects of the driving rain and hurricane-force winds? Oh, yeah, got that, too.
It's not enough to report on a storm by showing TV viewers its impact. Dramatic as it is, the standard B-roll footage of pounding surf, wind-whipped palm trees and mangled power lines serves as a mere palate-cleanser. On storm stories, TV reporters are required to interact with the weather and become, potentially, human sacrifices to it.
This makes weather reporting different than every other kind of breaking TV news story. No one covers a house fire by rushing into the burning building, or reports on a war by doing stand-ups in the middle of a tank battle.
With the weather, however, participation is mandatory.
During yesterday's coverage, for example, CNN's Rob Marciano was nearly blown off a New Orleans rooftop as he pointed out the "whitetops" in the surging Mississippi River. His colleague Don Lemon was at street level, in what appeared to be a big open parking lot, warning viewers that wind-borne debris "can really shear through you." Another CNN correspondent, Brian Todd, hit the jackpot: He had to hang on to a pole while doing his report from Baton Rouge.
Everyone seemed to have the must-have production element: the disembodied hand of a TV camera person wiping the rain-spattered lens in the middle of the correspondent's report.
Poor Jeff Ranieri of MSNBC. All he had to illustrate his contention that "no one was spared the brunt of Gustav's force" yesterday afternoon was a battered billboard and a few broken branches on a half-dry New Orleans street.
(Carl Hiaasen, the Miami Herald columnist and satiric novelist, once pointed out that fallen-tree footage is essential to TV hurricane coverage. The most-sought-after video, he wrote, is "in order of ratings: 1. Big tree on strip mall. 2. Big tree on house. 3. Big tree on car. 4. Small tree on car. 5. Assorted shrubbery on car.")
The champion weather-interacter yesterday, though, was Geraldo Rivera. Fox News Channel's self-described "warrior journalist" wasn't content to shoot his story about New Orleans's levees from the relative safety of a sturdy bridge or overpass, like his colleagues at MSNBC and CNN. Rivera went to the base of one of the levee walls, practically daring it to collapse: "The walls are holding," shouted Rivera, as if covering the fall of Jericho, "but it is fierce here." At least he got splashed by the "over-topping" waters.
Next up: Geraldo reports on feline dental care by sticking his head into a lion's mouth.
Rivera also brought back footage of . . . Something Dramatic Happening. While out taking in the weather, he and his crew spotted a man bobbing in the water. "There's a person! Stranded!" he exclaimed excitedly. "There's a person! Stranded! . . . I'm telling the cops here. He's drowning! He's got a lifeline. Oh, my God."
The "drowning" man actually looked like a Coast Guardsman or maritime professional with life jacket and tether line who was trying to secure a loosely moored vessel. It was hard to tell, and Rivera didn't. After showing his video of the scene, he didn't bother to follow up with an explanation of what had happened.
No worries. Gustav may have been less than the killer hurricane some had predicted, but there are two more storms forming behind it.
Wipe off the lenses, guys. And keep your windbreakers handy.