My father’s a huge fan of the Weather Channel, something I’ve never really gotten into. I did watch a bunch of its hurricane coverage on Sunday, though, trying to figure out how my travel was going to be affected. Thus, I got to see a really fabulous exchange as the studio anchor tossed to a field reporter on a boardwalk in New York City after learning that the storm had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. Paraphrasing from memory:
ANCHOR: [Reporter], we’ve just learned that Irene has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Has that changed anything where you are?
REPORTER: [buffeted by high winds and rain] Well, [Anchor], it’s still raining pretty hard here, and the winds are getting stronger…
Between the rain gear and the weather, it was sort of hard to see her, but really, I think it’s a miracle she didn’t end that sentence with “… you asshole.” The categorization of storms is almost completely arbitrary, applying numerical thresholds to continuous variables. It’s not a magic spell that makes the wind and rain slack off instantly.
Hand-wringing articles about how television is making us all dumber are such a staple of cultural commentary that they’ve become cliche. The vast majority of them are talking about the effect on the audience though, and miss out on this sort of effect, which I think is actually fairly significant: the need to constantly fill time talking about Stuff produces this kind of breathtaking inanity on the part of tv anchors and reporters on a regular basis. This one was particularly stupid, but almost every time I watch live tv news (which, admittedly, is not that often), I hear this sort of thing– a breathtakingly dumb remark arising from the need to keep blathering on about whatever’s happening, even though there’s nothing really happening.
This is a large part of why I no longer watch much tv news, even though it’s kind of addictive– on those occasions when I do need some news of the sort you get on tv, I always end up watching long past the point where I’ve acquired whatever facts I needed, and it’s become clear that the talking heads are just talking to fill time and trying not to repeat themselves.
You see a lot of the same thing happening in other media, particularly involving slower-moving events like elections. It’s what makes so many partisan political blogs and Twitter feeds basically unreadable– the exact details of what happens right now are vastly unlikely to affect the 2012 elections more than a year from now, but both professional media types and “citizen journalists” need to fill space. So, we get vast amounts of blather, often leading to things that are nearly as dumb as asking a field reporter in the path of a storm whether the change in classification has somehow stilled the wind and waves.
I’m not sure it actually has much effect on the audience, but more and more it seems to me that the people writing about television making people dumber have the right idea, but are talking about the wrong side of the camera.