As I type this, Seattle–or at least its media–is in a near panic bracing for what is being described as the first “snow” of the winter. I use quotes because the likely accumulation of falling crystalline water ice–yes, that’s the scientific description of snow–seems to be minimal in most places that aren’t on top of mountains.
That hasn’t stopped the media–especially TV and radio–from acting like Armageddon is upon us. But Armageddon with a smile. For one example, click here and then go to the video to watch the glowingly beaming weather lady on last night’s KING-TV Channel 5 broadcast. The sunny countenance sort of gives the lie to any notion that the station thinks Seattle is in for a hard one. Can you imagine someone smiling so much reporting about an impending tornado, or a looming tsunami?
Since I am New To Seattle, this will be my first local snow event (should it comes to pass). Whatever the outcome, I expect to be highly entertained by the media hype.
I spent half my life in the vicinity of Philadelphia and New York City, which averages about 24 inches of snow a year. That wasn’t Buffalo’s 94 inches or Minneapolis’s 50 inches. But it was a decent amount and certainly more than Seattle’s average (depending on which source you consult) of 8 to 11 inches. When I was growing up, it took about four inches to close the schools. Otherwise, we just mushed to classes in our snowboots.
Media fear and loathing about looming bad weather helps sell ads. In Houston, where I lived for seven years, the big weather event (aside from torrential rains and a surprising number of tornadoes) wasn’t snow, but hurricanes. Hurricanes are even better for TV than rain or snow because the run-up can last upwards of 10 days. Drama. For 20 years, one of the Houston stations, KHOU-TV (owned, as it happens, in common with KING-TV in Seattle), had as its meteorologist Neil Frank, the retired head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. For him, any hurricane within 2,500 miles of Houston got him so excited on air. He seemed like a weathered version of the crazed newscaster in the movie Network. (“I’m wet as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) To me, Frank looked like he was foaming at the mouth, in need of a rabies shot or something.
Of course, about 99% of those hurricanes ended up coming nowhere near Houston. But that did nothing to dampen Frank’s enthusiastic predictions, and presumably his ratings. Hell, even I switched to his station (but only when a hurricane actually got into the Gulf of Mexico).
Around Los Angeles, where I lived until last summer, hurricanes are a non-issue, and so is snow. Earthquakes are, but they can’t be predicted, doing the TV dogs no good at all. So they’re forced to play up incredibly skimpy amounts of the infrequent rain, often less than a
quarter-tenth-of-an-inch at a throw–an amount that no one in Seattle would blink at. Nevertheless, in such situations, several L.A. stations grandly go on “Storm Watch.” TV needs pictures, and fleeting rainfalls aren’t very accommodating. The result is that junior night-shift members of TV station news staffs are sent out to do a stand-up at one of several intersections in the city’s San Fernando Valley where storm run-off wells up a couple inches on the street due to poor drainage. Not exactly Noah and his ark.
To me, this weekend’s weather in Seattle looks like roughly the same magnitude.
Now I know that Seattleites have a fixation with their weather and have had some unpleasant recent encounters with the white stuff. These include the snow event two days before Thanksgiving 2010 when city officials misjudged how low the temperature would get, with the result that the laid-down brine froze, snarling traffic for hours. There’s also the botched response to the 2008 storm widely credited with cutting short the tenure of Mayor Greg Nickels. The city is hilly and drivers–already among the county’s most inept— don’t have enough experience driving in such challenging conditions. So maybe the stations are playing to their audience.
Still, to me the lack of perspective is fascinating. I plan to just kick back and watch the tube. Cheaper than going to one of those Armageddon movies.
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