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Hunkered down in TV land

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Five observations after watching local television coverage of four Florida hurricanes in six weeks:

1. I never want to hear the phrase "hunkered down" again as long as I live.

2. The daredevil reporter standing out in the lashing rain shouting about deteriorating conditions has become a standard of storm coverage (and comedy skits). But this extraordinary hurricane season seems to have brought on a tournament of slicker-clad dogfighting.

Within an hour around midnight Saturday, I saw two examples. Don Germaise of WFTS-Ch. 28 struggled to keep his footing in 95 mph winds in Vero Beach as Hurricane Jeanne was making landfall near Stuart, about 20 miles away. He was out there not for a couple of minutes but for more than half an hour. He dodged flying signs and tree limbs as the folks back in the Tampa newsroom asked inane questions.

At one point he said he heard what sounded like a tornado, and a dark mass appeared to be moving in the distance behind him. And still he stood there, as the folks in the newsroom checked the radar for tornadoes.

On 24-hour cable news outlet Bay News 9, Chris O'Connell was reporting from Melbourne. He was performing the lean-into-the-wind stunt, where you demonstrate that the wind is so powerful it can support your weight. The wind did him one better, lifting him off his feet and carrying him several yards before slamming him to the ground.

His landing wasn't visible because he flew behind a big concrete pillar, but he groaned "Oh God" into the mike before collecting himself and climbing to his feet with a comment about wind speed. The video was so dramatic that it showed up all day Sunday on CNN.

This stuff raises a couple of questions. A minute of it can give viewers a sense of how intense a storm is, but does 10 minutes give us 10 times as much information, or just 10 times as much titillation?

And there's the Jackass factor. How long will it be before a couple of teenagers grab the family videocam and head out into the next hurricane, bent on their 15 minutes of fame?

At least Germaise and O'Connell are actually reporters. On MSNBC, former member of Congress, part-time rock guitarist and full-time neocon talking head Joe Scarborough couldn't resist the urge to play weather cowboy. He stood out in 120 mph winds in West Palm Beach until his microphone was cut off.

What celebrity weather reporting can we expect next? A Very Special Oprah, with free wind gauges and rain gear for the audience members? I vote for Donald Trump, just to see if the hair moves.

3. I don't want to see any more wind speed graphics that look like winter temperature maps: 62 in Sarasota, 58 in Tampa, 57 in Clearwater. . . .

4. Television stations always have to make a tough decision about just how much storm coverage to offer. This time, some of them seemed to go with less is more. On Sunday, as Jeanne was bearing down on the Tampa Bay area, WTVT-Ch. 13 was broadcasting an NFL game.

But most stations stuck with the storm starting sometime Saturday evening. When viewers woke Sunday to the ominous news that Jeanne had not made the northerly turn predicted earlier, TV stations were there with advice and information.

Notably, Bay News 9 offered regular updates on shelters and evacuation orders in Spanish. It brought over reporters from Bay News 9 en Espanol, its Spanish-language station, which is available to cable subscribers with the Spanish language tier but not to basic cable customers. Since there were many Spanish-speaking residents in the storm's path, the updates were a real service.

5. I'm serious about "hunkered down."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or