Did the Media Really Overhype Hurricane Irene? It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

Criticism of Storm Coverage May Have Jumped to Conclusions

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Hurricane Irene
Hurricane Irene Credit: NASA

At this point in human history, certain questions are on the verge of outliving their usefulness, one of which is whether X event or Y personage received an more media attention than it deserved.

This line of interrogation, better suited for days of scarcity when there was a finite amount of media attention to be doled out, assumes that events and people earn fame based on their impact on culture and society. Fair and meritocratic as that standard may be, it might as well be a law of physics written without gravity in mind. Sometime last decade, the news hole became a black hole, and all traditional notions of intrinsic fame-worthiness dissolved. To put it in industrial terms, we live, now, in a world that has vast systems dedicated to manufacturing quote-unquote undeserved fame for everything from Kardashian spawn to Silicon Valley-funded startups with cuddly names. Quantifying the outputs with an eye to moral conclusions is a bit of a fool's errand -- especially if you're skipping the quantification and going straight to conclusions.

Which brings us to Hurricane Irene, the latest news event to spark this sort of conversation.

Was the infotainment bludgeoning -- whose apotheosis may have been Al Roker snapping pre-storm Twitpics of Brian Stelter thoughtfully looking at his toes in the pre-storm North Carolina surf -- a cheap lunge for ratings or simply necessary when a rather large storm bears down on a heavily populated part of the United States?

Some criticisms clearly came too early, among them Howard Kurtz's Daily Beast column "A Hurricane of Hype," which argued that "Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon." This was published before Irene's impact on upstate New York and Vermont, parts of which remain underwater, became evident.

Mr. Kurtz's analysis was also more intuitive than evidentiary, leaving a massive opening for stats geeks like Nate Silver, author of The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog. Mr. Silver did some statistical analysis, assigning media value to major U.S. storms in the form of "news units" and looking at that against outcomes like fatalities, economic damage and so forth. Mr. Silver's is an interesting methodology that , more broadly applied, might actually make questions of overhype sort of interesting again. He found nine storms that got as much media attention as Irene, or more attention, while they were active:

All nine were at least Category 4 hurricanes at some point during their lifespans, which Hurricane Irene never was (it topped out as a Category 3). And all but one made landfall as a Category 2 storm or higher, which Irene did not; it was a Category 1 when it hit land, first in North Carolina and then again in New Jersey. (The other exception is Hurricane Gilbert, which made landfall as a tropical storm in 1988 -- but which had once been a very powerful Category 5 storm that did a lot of damage to the Caribbean.)

So Irene was not as powerful as most of these other storms -- as measured by wind speed. On the other hand, it was at least as destructive as many of them.

So far, 21 fatalities have been directly attributed to Irene. It's plausible that the number will rise some, particularly given that there is still quite a bit of active flooding in New England, New Jersey and upstate New York. (Flooding, not wind, is normally responsible for most deaths in hurricanes.) Even if we're fortunate and the number does not increase any further, 21 deaths would put Irene in a tie for the 10th-worst United States death toll for all Atlantic hurricanes since 1980.

While we're on the topic of big-picture questions, remember when Graydon Carter said that 9/11 had killed irony? You're forgiven if you forgot, but Michael Hirschorn does a convincing job in New York magazine's 9/11 issue explaining how Mr. Carter's assertion still holds some water. Part of the argument is definitional, as Mr. Hirschorn urges us not to confuse irony with its hipster cousin, snark. And part of Mr. Hirschorn's argument is to remind us what we're not getting in our war-torn and destitute times: books like "Catch-22 ," movies like "Three Kings" and so forth:

Where irony mustered, it did credit to its lineage. I can count the usuals: [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert and Morning Joe. The Office was smart about the absurdities of lumpen white-collar life. Saturday Night Live went "political" and occasionally was okay, while early Gawker led a blogger charge past irony into the murkier precincts of snark. But they were rara avises and semi-effectual to boot, after Stewart: It is hard to cite an influential author, essayist, blogger, artist, or musician who has brought to bear the full range of ironic whizbangery to strike even merely an emotionally satisfying blow against the ever-more-powerful political-financial complex, one that is dragging this country to Depression-era levels of income inequality, while Washington frog-marches us toward a new kind of banana-republicanism.

Gawker's John Cook continued his superlative coverage of Fox News and its personalities, slowly mustering a case against abuse of power going on there:

We reported in June that Bill O' Reilly and his wife of 15 years Maureen McPhilmy O' Reilly seem to be on the outs. Last summer she purchased a separate home under her own name, and transferred her voter registration to the new address, while O' Reilly kept his registration current at their old address. As per usual, Fox News did not comment on the situation at the time. Since then we've learned what happened, and it's like Bridges of Madison County meets Copland. When confronted with a potentially disloyal spouse, O' Reilly reacted by -- not unlike his boss Roger Ailes -- treating his local police department like a private security force and trying to damage one cop's career for the sin of crossing Bill O' Reilly.

On Nikki Finke's site, writer-director James Toback told a gripping personal account of what it's like to have his autobiographical script for 1974's "The Gambler" remade by Scorcese and DiCaprio without having been informed of the new project in advance:

Over the years my greatest personal reward on The Gambler has come from members of Gamblers Anonymous, an organization whose meetings I have attended in dozens of rooms in cities around the country. I have yet to attend a single meeting without at least four or five members approaching me with the assertion that The Gambler is their story, that I know them and that they know me and that now they can finally be understood by their families and friends by simply saying: "See The Gambler!"

So learning of the plan to "remake" my movie at the same time and in the same fashion as any other devoted reader of this esteemed column, I suppose I should feel... what? That a tribute is being paid to a creation I left behind? I suppose. But one doesn't always feel what one is supposed to feel.

As the late, great Jackie Wilson sang: Just a kiss Just a smile Call my name Just once in a while And I'll be satisfied.

Rudeness, on the other hand, and disrespect yield their own unanticipated consequences.

The Church of Scientology responds to The New Yorker.
The Church of Scientology responds to The New Yorker.

We end with one of the more interesting (and by "interesting," I mean crazy) media artifacts I've seen in a while: the Church of Scientology's Freedom magazine, the latest edition of which takes aim at The New Yorker. Explanations cannot do justice to this strange exercise in PR and publishing, but I will try. Basically, the "magazine" is an attack on The New Yorker; its writer Lawrence Wright, who earlier this year wrote a 24,000-word account of director Paul Haggis' falling out with the church; and on the magazine's fact-checking processes. To give you an idea of the level of intellect and literary skill at work here, there are a lot of plays on Mr. Wright's surname ( "In the end, the numbers tell the tale of how The Wright Stuff became The Wrong Stuff") while the magazine's cover features a rendition of Eustace Tilley that makes the character look like a bum. Not only is his monocle cracked, but a lizard-looking Paul Haggis is crawling out of his top hat. The writing inside, needless to say, is aggressive. Take the account of a meeting between Scientology officials and New Yorker staff:

In truth, over the course of the daylong meeting Wright was taken outside by editor David Remnick and presumably reprimanded for his shoddy work as the fact checking proves a sham. Document after document debunks Wright's premise and assumptions about the Church, reveals Haggis to be a liar and eviscerates the apostates he relied on for his "investigation." Looking none too pleased, [New Yorker general counsel Lynn] Oberlander sternly orders the now shamed fact checkers to take the Church-produced binders. She tells a Church staffer, "I want to get these downstairs so I can show these guys how to fact check." Given the debacle of their sacrosanct "fact checking," The New Yorker takes Wright's article off the publication calendar.

It's not clear who, exactly, would be the readership for this sort of thing, but the magazine was being handed out near the Conde Nast building this week, is a perversely interesting read, regardless of its accuracy.

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