Here and there, for a few minutes at a time, the cable TV news stations bring us actual news. Hurricane Michael has blown them out of their studios in New York and Washington, forcing reporters to stand out in the wind and rain for a little while.
So much of the time, CNN, MSNBC and Fox bring us endless hours of political analysis after a dollop of news, and then reanalyze the analysis the rest of the day and deep into each evening. They’ve got battalions of experts ever ready to give their take on: a) the latest outrage from President Donald Trump, or b) …
Actually, there is no b), unless you’re watching Fox, which disguises all Trumpian outrage as Trumpian triumph.
We’re now 17 years into a war, which is almost never covered by the cable stations. The killing and the mass destruction continue, but if we don’t see it, maybe we can forget it’s actually happening. For the cable stations, covering a war is such a pain. It’s so much more expensive to pay an entire crew stationed in Afghanistan than to have talking heads sit in a stateside studio.
Anyway, they’re out there now, in the wind and rain, telling us the latest about Hurricane Michael – because if there’s anything TV likes better than something they can cover cheaply, it’s something they can cover with dramatic pictures.
You want a piece of local evidence? I can still remember an afternoon when I was a talking head over at WJZ-TV when a newsroom police scanner brought us a report of a fire in an empty warehouse in West Baltimore. Now, in the life of a big city, an empty warehouse blaze may not seem like such a big deal. But in the life of a local TV station, here’s what happened: an assistant news director immediately cried out, “How high are the flames?!”
In other words, how good are the pictures? How many viewers might we hold onto with the look of drama as we head into the commercial break?
Hurricane Michael will bring us the kind of coverage from Florida that we saw just a few weeks back when North Carolina was struck by that hurricane. Can anybody still remember the name of that hurricane?
Here’s a better question: Can anybody remember the last time there was coverage out of North Carolina? They’re still mopping up the damage there from Hurricane Florence. Untold thousands of survivors there are still trying to patch together their lives. The human tragedy has not ended.
But the pictures aren’t so dramatic any more, and it’s so expensive to keep crews there. And so for the last few weeks, we’ve been back to endless political analysis out of Washington.
But Hurricane Michael’s here now. For a little while, they’ll have some really dramatic shots to offer us. Wind and rain and pounding surf, and buildings and TV reporters being blown around. It’s a lot more dramatic than a warehouse fire.
And then, after this commercial break, we’ll be back to business as usual.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at Six: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House). His most recent book, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.