Dan Rather, who rose to succeed the venerable news anchorman, Walter Cronkite, might credit his climb to the top on his news coverage of two tragedies.
There was, of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Rather, who happened to be in Dallas that day transporting film from his CBS bureau office in New Orleans, did yeoman’s duty reporting to the nation what was going on during all the confusion. The nation’s tragedy was a triumph for Rather, the son of a Texas ditch digger, and he was soon Washington Bureau Chief for CBS.
He would have never got his big chance at Dallas on that dark day in 1963 had it not been for his coverage of another disaster— Hurricane Carla’s 1961 assault on Houston. A tornado spawned by a Category 5 hurricane, it brought devastation to the Houston area and Rather, working for a TV station there, did something that was innovative at the time. He went outside, braving the dangerous winds, with live reports— something he admits was a sizeable boost to his career as a journalist. Nobody actually went outside into the weather to report on the weather in those days, and it drew the attention of network kingpins. Had he not withstood the wind that day, he would probably not have been in Dallas fewer than two years later and, by extension, not even on the radar as a candidate to succeed Cronkite as the CBS Evening News anchor.
So now we know who deserves the blame for all those reporters on the Weather Channel, MSNBC and the major networks standing outside, struggling to stay on their feet in the wind and the rain. Their only protection seems to be snazzy rain gear and logo-enhanced windbreakers (an interesting choice when you think about it), inspiring many a viewer to scream, “Get out of the hurricane like you are telling everyone else to do!” Okay, most were screaming something more abbreviated like, “Get inside, a#@!*%!” as I was.
Standing outside in a dangerous storm just to let people know it is a dangerous storm is considered foolhardy and unnecessary by some and intrepid and selfless by others. The latter admire those who go the extra mile to heighten public awareness when something dangerous is heading our way. There is no doubt that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were dangerous and that it is a public service to prepare those in their paths for what is coming.
So is there an advantage to sending reporters into harm’s way where they are at the mercy of heavy winds, drenching rains, surging waters and flying debris threatening decapitation?
The same debate occasionally arises over war correspondents interjecting themselves into the heat of battle instead of observing from the sidelines and reporting as observers and not participants. The difference is that so-called embedded reporters in battle are regarded as brave, even heroic, because they are risking their lives in pursuit of the public’s need to know.
Willingly bracing yourself against raging winds that first-responders find too dangerous to confront in the line of duty seems a little extreme to make a point— especially a point that can be made in three little words: Don’t do this! It might have the opposite effect. If that guy’s out in the storm, one might reason, it couldn’t be all that bad.
I suppose watching someone getting pelted, wind-whipped and mugged on television or streaming video is entertaining for some of us. Perhaps we’re waiting for that one reporter to be spirited away into oblivion by a gale-force blast. Then again the journalists themselves may be so tired being characterized as purveyors of fake news that they are willing to take one for the team.
Complicating this way of delivering dangerous weather news is that the reporters are often impossible to understand with the howling winds literally yanking the words out of their mouths.
“What’s did that guy say, Ralph?”
“Best I can tell he was saying, ‘Please, get me out of here!”
The usual defense for this kind of reporting is that they take all the necessary safety measures. Furthermore, they do it because there is nothing like dramatic visuals to convince people that this is serious stuff. I’m thinking that 90-foot palm trees snapping like twigs, storm surges floating away pickup trucks and parts of buildings flying through the air are visual enough for me.
The best — and simplest— explanation I’ve heard for standing outside in a hurricane came from Sam Champion, an MSNBC meteorologist: “We do this so you can see what it’s like outside.”