CNN: The Contrived News Network

Crisis TV as Parent-Sitting Service

I suppose I should be grateful for what the 24-hour cable news cycle has wrought — but I mostly find myself bemused and not a little disturbed, as well as amused.

A few weeks back I was in Chicago taking care of my mother after surgery (hers, not mine). We did a lot of sitting around in her apartment. Fortunately for us — although not for residents of the eastern U.S. seaboard — Hurricane Irene was emerging as a very large, scary-sounding storm, presumably aimed dead-on for several major American cities. This was fortunate for me in particular, in that it gave my mother something to watch obsessively during every waking hour of the day, thus relieving me of the obligation to keep her entertained. And this, in turn, was possible due to the equally disaster-obsessed CNN, which preempted all other news coverage to focus 24/7 on (drum roll, please) Hurricane Irene. (Insert high tech visuals of striking lightning and wind-whipped trees, along with amped-up soundtrack).

Lee Heller

Ok, yes, Irene was one big-assed storm, but she was only a Category 1, she was moving slowly, and there just wasn’t a lot of real drama involved in her leisurely crawl up the East Coast from South Carolina to New York. (I was back in Summerland by the time she hit Vermont and left most of it under water.) So, what’s a nice cable news network to do? While waiting for the storm to reach major population centers, or frankly just to do any significant damage at all, CNN crews went to seaside areas, stationed themselves near the surf, and tried to manufacture drama.

It was pretty hilarious, actually. The reporters would don red CNN windbreakers and set up near the shore, with pounding waves in the background. When that proved insufficiently exciting, they’d move first onto the beach, then into the break. All the while, the reporter would warn the audience about how dangerous it is to be near the shore during a storm like Irene.

Finally, one enterprising moron found his way down the steps at the end of a pier in Maryland, standing partially submerged in water. Cut from him to a CNN anchor interviewing the governor of said state. The first words out of the (much smarter) governor’s mouth: “Tell that guy to get out of the water — it’s dangerous!”

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up to a fascination with unfolding weather drama — when it’s real. I happened to be in southern Illinois during Hurricane Katrina, visiting a friend who was under the weather (figuratively). In late August you can’t really go outside in southern Illinois anyway, it’s so disgustingly hot and humid, so everyone stays in and stares at their TVs. We found ourselves transfixed by the spectacle of a city of a half a million people completely inundated and emptied out (by those who could get out). It’s just not something you see every day, and it’s only because of television that we are able to watch it at all. Historically, you were either the victim of a natural disaster, or safely absent. Now, you can watch from the comfort of your living room couch.

It was an appalling thing to witness, but it also felt important to watch: This was history unfolding before our eyes. A city completely flooded, a disaster too big for an effective government response; a harbinger of future calamities, as global climate change ups the ante on what we like to reassure ourselves are only “weather events.” Watching made us a part of that history, albeit in the safe, dry margins.

On the other hand, CNN’s coverage of Irene was just, well, disaster porn. There wasn’t much there to get excited about, but they cranked up the drama to keep eyeballs on screens. If Irene had wreaked horrible destruction, I imagine we’d have praised CNN and congratulated ourselves for being witnesses to a bellwether event in the history of Earth’s climate. But it didn’t, and we weren’t, and at the end of it I felt like my tawdry flirtation with CNN’s weather coverage was casual and meaningless.

Then again, I guess I should quit carping and join the ever-swelling ranks of adult children who are grateful for their parents’ attachment to CNN, and for CNN’s obsession with crises, whether they are genuine or trumped-up.


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