Media coverage of the recent cyclones (namely Harvey and Irma) to hit the Caribbean and the American south has been extensive and some would say relentless. The drenched and swaying bodies of reporters being manhandled by the feral wind (reminiscent of a dry leaf caught in an eddy) was a common sight every single time I tuned into the news coverage. But one particular news channel is worthy of special mention.
In the aftermath of Harvey, CNN headliner Anderson Cooper (referred to herewith as AC) was hailed on social media, dare I say, by one and all as the paragon of ‘disaster reporting’. Many who don’t even subscribe to CNN for their daily diet of news and propaganda and a subset therein who don’t quite appreciate AC’s ‘sexual choice’ also grudgingly cut him slack. AC’s reach and appeal though cuts across the partisan ideological divide and is perhaps a product of his reportage as a correspondent for the nightly program ’60 Minutes’ which airs on CBS, a quasi-national network. In addition, he has consciously cultivated this reputation as an upstanding, conscientious and relatively objective journalist. His early body of work which includes some great reporting from the various theaters of war earned him quite a following. In the natural disaster context, his stellar work in the aftermath of Katrina, the Tsunami reporting from Sri Lanka and his coverage of a couple of other calamities are perhaps etched in the memories of the audience and which added to his credibility and appeal.
AC’s brand of ‘grown-up’ journalism found new admirers this hurricane season (especially his coverage post Harvey ploughed through parts of Texas and having ‘precipitated’ utter devastation ) owing to his sensitivity and respect for the victims right to privacy and an appreciation for the prevailing circumstance. Additionally, his penchant for not injecting any emotion whatsoever into his reportage either by manipulation of either the pen, face or tone was also lauded. He would ask relevant questions wait without pressing for an answer and then move on to the next question without unnecessary follow-ups or interjections. This style sat well with the viewership who appreciated his distaste for ‘journalistic overreach’ especially in the age of ‘media trails’ and ‘media circuses’ and especially at such sombre moments. Folks like the fact that it is always an interview with AC, never an interrogation.
And then the coverage moved on to Irma!
AC stood there in mild to medium winds and a light drizzle(at a location away from the direct path of the storm) marshaling his team of reporters spread out across Florida and orchestrating the ‘real-time’ coverage of the incessantly ‘BREAKING NEWS’. When the live feeds of these ‘brave’ reporters started rendering one after the other on our TV screens one did get an unmissable sense of the force of the storm with the rain pounding their bodies and the gale-force winds trying to uproot them from their spots. As the wind grew stronger, the reportage became pluckier! Kyung Lah (one of the reporters) started to resemble a punch drunk sailor trying to walk his way (her in this case) back home from the dockyard dive at the port of call. She could barely ‘stand her ground’ (also an infamous law in Florida) and the danger of flying debris decapitating her was imminent and yet there she was resembling the inflatable gyrating tube man steadfastly relaying the specifics of her first hand tryst with nature’s fury.
The storm grew stronger and the bodies started to contort ever more violently and yet these fine men and women would not abdicate their duties. At one point, even AC looked like a wet sponge his face still not betraying a speck of emotion! Never once did these microphone wielding warriors seek refuge under the safe and dry environs of a storm shelter. These ‘brave’ men and women soldiered on without regard for personal safety. An impressive sight undoubtedly.
That said, for all the bravado on display, I’m still not sure what AC and his intrepid crew were trying to accomplish by standing around in the path of 100 mph winds, risking grievous bodily injury and even death! Why couldn’t they move indoors instead and train their cameras on the storm outside and then proceed to report the storm live? What was the compulsion to assume such great personal risk? One wonders if the viewer experience would have been diminished any had these journalists not put their arses on the line and if it was the principal driver.
The answer is both Yes and No. Yes, the public is hungry for as direct and untouched a version of events that are being covered by the purveyors of news today. No, that certainly does not mean the public want you to brave the lethal storms as we can very well get a sense of the power and scale of the storm by just looking at live footage of the trees, boats in the marina or quite simply the debris flying around. This is not war reporting folks where there is a justifiable need and perhaps is well worth the personal risk to bring to the viewers the ‘truth’ from the battlefields. But a storm!!
So you ask why then the need for such a perilous undertaking? Quite frankly and simply put, it is competition that drives such foolhardiness. It is the never-ending ratings war. Every news outlet is trying to set itself apart from the other and this is how they have decided to up the ante on their competitors and have one leg-up in the ratings. Put lives on the line! It is a dangerous and slippery slope though which might probably pay rich dividend (in terms of both viewership and advertising revenue) until a dislodged and airborne stop sign beheads a reporter on the next episode of the ‘Storm Chasing with Anderson Cooper’. What is next? Reporting live from the base of an active volcano when it erupts or jumping into the eye of a tornado! Enough already.