Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent a fair amount of time yesterday flipping back and forth between various cable news channels watching the developments in Florida as Hurricane Irma came ashore. The storm wound up weakening considerably in the final hours and, while still bad, the damage was probably less than it might have been if Irma had performed as advertised. But as I watched the coverage of these events I was somewhat surprised at some of the faces I was seeing doing live standups in the midst of the wind and driving rain.
On MSNBC I saw both Chris Hayes and Thomas Roberts on location. On CNN, even more surprisingly, there was morning anchor Chris Cuomo decked out in a poncho and holding a microphone wrapped up in a plastic bag. At times, the various reporters were wading through knee high flood waters and leaning into the heavy, gusting winds, doing exactly the sort of things they were telling everyone else not to do if they wanted to survive Mother Nature’s fury.
The New York Times had a story up last night asking the same question I had. Why? Why are these people who generally spend all of their time talking about how awful Donald Trump is and how wonderful liberal policies are, standing out there in the middle of Irma, apparently on the verge of being blown into the sea?
Early Sunday morning, Bill Weir, a veteran CNN correspondent, was talking to the anchor Chris Cuomo in the middle of a live shot in Key Largo, Fla. He could barely stand up straight in the lashing winds of Hurricane Irma. At one point, he was nearly blown over by a gust.
As video of the incident spread on social media, criticism mounted. “Why do these news networks feel the need to put these reporters out there?” read one tweet. Another said: “This is not safe. Lead by example.”
Others pointed out that reporters were standing in conditions that they were advising residents to stay out of. Even Mr. Cuomo acknowledged the criticism: “There is a strong argument to be made that standing in a storm is not a smart thing to do.”
Yes, Mr. Cuomo. There’s a strong argument to be made indeed. I’m not sure why you really need any human being standing in those conditions, but least of all someone with pretty much zero experience doing so and no real background in the science behind what was happening.
I already mentioned that MSNBC had Chris Hayes out there in the deluge. His friend from New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait, was moved to make this admittedly tongue-in-cheek comment:
If MSNBC is going to have @chrislhayes die on television, he should go out talking about structural inequality, not the weather. https://t.co/5SwxPPsJCr
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 10, 2017
I’ve heard the argument being made that putting human beings out in those conditions drives home the need for viewers to heed the warnings and remain safe. Actually, I think that most of us, seeing trees and cars blowing past and the roofs of buildings ripping off could figure out that it was pretty dangerous without watching Cuomo or Hayes cowering behind the wall of a gas station. But even if we were to assume that there’s a value add to having someone on the scene, wouldn’t you want people who could speak authoritatively about what was going on? Chris Hayes was a philosophy major at Brown University. He is not a meteorologist. Chris Cuomo has a law degree from Fordham. He is not a meteorologist. Thomas Roberts has a communications degree from Western Maryland College. He is not a meteorologist either.
It’s not as if MSNBC and NBC News don’t have a stable of qualified people. We were hearing regularly from Bill Karins, an actual scientist who has a degree in meteorology from SUNY. I did an interview with Karins a couple of years ago (you can listen to it here) and we specifically discussed the career of meteorologists who wind up being “that guy” or “that gal” who gets sent out to do live shots in dangerous conditions. Here’s the thing… Bill said he actually likes doing that. He was sent to go stand in front of approaching tornadoes when he worked in Kansas and has been through his share of beach coverage of hurricanes. And when he’s looking into the camera to tell you about the storm he’s experiencing, he actually knows how storms work. Yet oddly enough, Bill was the one back in the studio operating the Big Weather Board (or whatever that gizmo is called).
Should the networks be rethinking this strategy? I’m sure they believe it’s better for ratings, but what benefit is being delivered to the viewer? And what do you plan to do if the dire scenario which Jonathan Chait described actually plays out? I’d wager there are more than a few conservative viewers who wouldn’t lose any sleep if Chris Hayes or Chris Cuomo went off the air, but nobody wants to see them exit that way.