Did the media overhype Irene? (II)

In retrospect, the biggest problem with Howard Kurtz’s rant about the media’s overhyping Irene was that he was way too early. When I linked to him on Sunday afternoon, the storm clearly seemed to have fizzled — and the main question at the time was whether the media should have been more restrained, or if we were dealing with a genuinely threatening situation that just happened not to pan out. Then came the floods.

Yesterday, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter and I appeared on “The Emily Rooney Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) to discuss whether the media were guilty of overkill. Essentially we were in agreement: the non-stop coverage was too much and often silly; the fact that Irene veered away from Washington and New York City initially made it seem like the storm had been oversold; but given the devastation in Vermont, Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire, it turned out that the storm hadn’t be overhyped at all. (It was a great kick to share the stage for a moment with Stelter, whom I hugely admire. Here is his Monday story on the Weather Channel.)

The last word goes to Charles Apple (via Martin Langeveld), who mocks the hype theory with images of the reality on the ground. Irene was a major storm that will affect the region for months to come. It was, in some respects, every bit as bad as the predictions — just different.

Video above is from Brattleboro Community Television.


A North Shore view of Irene

Fallen branch by the side of Route 127 in Beverly. Click on image for more photos.

Even though we weren’t hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene on the North Shore, I thought it would be fun to drive around and take some pictures this afternoon. Nothing too dramatic. I started in Danvers and made my way to Beverly, Manchester-by-the-Sea and Magnolia before heading home.

The ocean off the coast in Manchester and Magnolia was by far the most visually interesting. Just slightly inland there was little wind. But by the shore it was still strong, as seagulls literally flew in place against the air currents.

I shot some video, too, but since it wasn’t as good as this, I decided not to post it.

Looking back at the Hurricane of 1938

My grandfather Elmer Shaw in Onset. Click on image for more photos.

In late September 1938, an enormously destructive storm hit most of the northeastern United States. The Hurricane of 1938 resulted in 564 deaths and more than 1,700 injuries.

The hurricane has also been a matter of family legend. The Shaws, my mother’s side of the family, owned a cottage on the water — “Shawnee” — along East Boulevard in Onset, part of Wareham. I spent many happy summer days there in the 1960s and early ’70s. And I was always told that my grandfather Elmer Shaw had done such a good job of building the cottage that it was the only one along East Boulevard to survive the hurricane.

Here’s how the Boston Globe of Sept. 22 described the impact of the hurricane on Wareham:

Without lights and almost completely inundated in many sections, the town remained on the verge of isolation. No trains arrived and it was utterly impossible to enter the town through the main street.

All stores in the business district were completely under water. The warehouse of the Tremont Nail Company was 10 feet under water.

I seem to recall family members saying that the hurricane came with no warning. If that’s the case, then perhaps they weren’t paying attention. Though the cable-news saturation of 2011 was unimaginable back then, the Globe ran several stories as the storm drew closer, among them “Hurricane Moving Toward the Bahamas” (Sept. 19) and “Hurricane May Spare Florida” (Sept. 20).

Still, if the Globe’s online archives are complete, then the next time the word “hurricane” popped up was on Sept. 22, after the storm had swept through. But people did listen to the radio in the 1930s, and it’s hard to imagine that storm updates weren’t part of news reports.

Recently my cousin Sue discovered a trove of family pictures, including some of Onset and of the Hurricane of 1938. I thought you might enjoy having a look.

Did the media overhype Irene?

Here was my prediction for Tropical Inconvenience Irene: a half-inch of rain and 20 mph winds. As it turned out, I wasn’t that far off, at least for those of us who live on the North Shore.

But does it necessarily follow that the media overhyped what turned out to be the Storm of the Week? At the Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz excoriates cable news, writing that “the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings.”

Kurtz’s point is that the storm got the coverage that it did mainly because it was heading toward New York City, and it’s hard to disagree. But Irene has caused tremendous damage in the South, and flooding could be heavy in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont later today.

What I’d like to know is whether there is reason to believe Irene was overhyped from the beginning — or if this was a legitimate potential disaster that just happened to fizzle out.

Slate inexplicably lays off Jack Shafer

Jack Shafer

Earlier this summer, Mark Lisheron called and asked if I’d like to talk with him for a profile of Slate media critic Jack Shafer that he was writing for the American Journalism Review. Well, of course. Shafer is among the very best when it comes to journalism about journalism. He’s also been kind to me over the years, so I was happy to return the favor. You can read Lisheron’s piece here.

Then, yesterday, the inexplicable happened: Slate got rid of Shafer, according to AdWeek, with editor David Plotz citing ongoing financial woes at the pioneering webzine. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post also ties the move to problems at the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.

Shafer is a dogged reporter in a field where too many media critics would prefer to sit back and pontificate. (Yes, irony alert. I get it.) But he wore his reporting lightly in the sense that you could tell how much research he’d put into his pieces, yet he didn’t feel compelled to show his work all the time. As a small-“l” libertarian, he also brought a calm, iconoclastic perspective to a field dominated by liberals and conservatives thundering at each other about allegations of bias.

It was Shafer who popularized my two favorite descriptions of Rupert Murdoch: “rotten old bastard” and “genocidal tyrant.” Though Shafer is no admirer of Murdoch, he uses the former description more affectionately than not, and “genocidal tyrant” is actually something Murdoch himself coined. Nevertheless, I always enjoy borrowing those descriptions and crediting them to Shafer.

As for Slate, well, times are tough, and I suppose Plotz has access to website traffic numbers to justify his decision. But as far as I’m concerned, Shafer is pretty much the only reason to look at Slate, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll even bother with it anymore other than for exceptional articles someone flags on Twitter.

Shafer, I suspect, will soon surface in a better job than he’s got now. Still, this is a bitter day.

Photo via the Missouri School of Journalism.

Three for Thursday

There’s so much going on this morning that I can barely keep up. And I really need to return to (shhh!) the Book. So here’s a quick roundup, to be followed by a more important matter, and then (I tell myself sternly) that’s it for today.

  • Don’t miss Michael Levenson’s splendid Boston Globe article on the millions of dollars being spent on Beacon Hill by developers looking to build casinos in Massachusetts. Levinson wins extra bonus points for referring to “gambling interests” rather than the PR-ish “gaming interests” so beloved by those trying to improve the image of their miserable industry. As Dick Hirsch says of “gaming”: “They are trying to wrap a noxious substance in an elegant package in order to conceal its toxicity, deodorize it and tell us what a benefit it will be.”
  • Very sad news about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as Apple’s chief executive. Forgive me if I’ve said this before: he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, always keeping his focus on what users want – and even on what they don’t know they want. He is a visionary and quite possibly a genius. The must-read is this essay by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Don’t skip the video. Though it is universally believed that Jobs is gravely ill, I hope he can contribute to Apple in a reduced capacity for a long time to come.
  • Best wishes to Jim Romenesko, the indefatigable media blogger who announced his semi-retirement yesterday. Starting in the 1990s, Romenekso – first at his own site, later for the Poynter Institute – has been linking to (and offering short, intelligent commentary on) every bit of media news and gossip he can find. Especially in the early days of the Internet, he gave alt-weekly types like me a small national readership. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, when he announced the move to Poynter. And here’s a Phoenix article written by Mark Jurkowitz in 2005 on the dread “Romenesko effect.” Good luck to Jim, the best friend obscure media columnists like me ever had.