Just when did ordinary winter storms — lots of snow in Denver, surprise! — become such big news? I doubt Walter Cronkite introduced more than a handful of weather stories during his entire 19-year run as anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” Dan Rather, Cronkite’s successor, was famously fond of hanging onto lampposts in the middle of hurricanes. But for the most part, routine stretches of bad weather were considered just that: routine.
No more. Now, every cold front that threatens to slicken roads and cause airport delays along the Eastern corridor (where, not merely coincidentally, almost all network TV news executives live and work) has become urgent news. And not just in winter. Springtime thunderstorms, summer heat waves, the first cold snap of the fall — all of them get breathless treatment, often accompanied by a barrage of scary stats: “14 states under severe weather watches”; “24 million people at risk for the possibility of tornadoes”; “43 million people at risk for flash flooding.” I grew up in Kansas City, Mo., in what used to be known as Tornado Alley. In the late spring and early summer, we were always at risk. It never seemed to make the national news.
Hurricanes, of course, bring out the full artillery. Television loves hurricanes, not just because they offer great visuals, but also because our ability to track them has so improved that days of coverage can essentially be run on autopilot.
Hurricanes and other real weather disasters, of course, are major news events, warranting major coverage. But, now, even routine hiccups in the weather are hyped into national quasi-emergencies. An impending nor’easter a few weeks back was nasty enough to earn the meteorologically fashionable designation “bomb cyclone.” (Another one hit Northern California this week.) And don’t get me started on those hair-raising “RealFeel” temperatures. Just give me the temperature, please; I’ll decide how cold I feel. Really.
I blame local news, where weather has long been a ratings driver and the local weathercaster serves as both folksy town crier and your nagging Aunt Agnes. Cold weather coming? Make sure to “dress in layers.” A 30 percent chance of rain? Better “keep the umbrella handy.” Temperatures expected to fluctuate by more than a few degrees? “We’re on a roller coaster!” Temperatures go up and down — can you imagine?
I’m actually a fan of local news; I make a point of watching it wherever I travel. But the consultants have clearly been traveling, too. Tune in to the 10 or 11 o’clock news in almost any city in the country — Chicago or Memphis or Las Vegas (where the weather changes approximately once every two months) — and chances are you’ll see not one but three weathercasts: an opening “preview,” a full report midway through the program and a final recap at the end. The weather has always been the main reason to watch local news. Now, it seems, it’s the only thing on local news.
At least weather forecasting is getting better. A modern five-day forecast, according to a report this year in Science magazine, is as accurate as a one-day forecast was in 1980 — thanks to better satellite observation, faster computers and improved data modeling.
Those alarmist weather forecasts, moreover, can be oddly comforting. Unlike most of the news in our hopelessly divided time, the weather is a reassuring constant, something we can all agree on. (Though in September, President Trump and his hurricane-map-altering Sharpie managed to throw even that into question.) Ginning up the drama for every approaching storm gives us the thrill of danger — followed by a sigh of relief when we come through it safe and sound, as we almost always do, except for a tragic few. We congratulate ourselves on our hardiness, thank the weather-watchers for their vigilance and get on with our lives.
Making sure, of course, to keep the umbrella handy.