What Hurricane Ian shows us about news, real and manufactured

It’s been a horrifying natural disaster — a storm that only comes along once every 500 years — but Hurricane Ian has also triggered something else: a reminder of what our politics and media used to be before the era of endless polarization.

Appreciate this while you can. Chances are it won’t last.

For several days, the whole Washington performance chorus — red-meat soundbites aimed at the base, hyperactive opinion shows and panelists — was largely swept off the national stage. In its place stood the things that matter: facts and figures, information and updates, safety and security.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shifted his identity to meet the crisis. The snark was gone, the libs were left un-owned. Evacuation orders had nothing to do with an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Instead, DeSantis focused on the real work of government, displaying a command of the emergency forces at his disposal, along with sober and realistic assessments of what it would take to repair his state. He thanked the Biden administration for its pledge of federal assistance.

The governor’s battles with the media also subsided. He needed them now — not as a conduit for comments he hoped would go viral, but as the best way to get the latest information out to battered residents.

In turn, the media — given actual news of historic proportions — discarded the Beltway-centric posturing that is often confused for actual journalism. National news outlets simply and concisely reported the fast-shifting facts about Hurricane Ian. Precious few column inches were devoted to any “analysis” of what this all meant for 2024. Front-page maps and graphs of the hurricane’s path replaced microscopic examination of the latest polls from swing counties in western Pennsylvania.

Cable news could not, of course, completely abandon performance. Viewers saw the usual rain-soaked reporters standing out in the middle of 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts, skirting danger to keep action-hungry television executives engaged.

Still, thankfully absent was the rampant speculation that normally fills hours of cable camera time. Those panels of commentators brought in to “share their insights” about everything from monkey-pox to nuclear war were given a well-deserved back-seat to real experts. When there was speculation, it was informed. The audience heard from in-house meteorologists or researchers from the National Hurricane Center, who backed up theories with years of experience in their field.

Hurricane Ian, much like the opening weeks of the war in Ukraine, gave viewers and readers a look at what news outlets could be. In some ways, it was a glimpse into what CNN’s new bosses say they’re aiming for. More straight news, less opinion. More reporters on the scene, fewer talking heads inside a well-lighted studio.

But the hurricane also pointed out the problem with this goal. When big news breaks, cable covers it wall-to-wall: legions of troops attack the story, updating rapid developments around the clock. Ratings shoot up. Viewers check back often. However, life being what it is, very few days wind up making history over the course of a year. That’s when all news outlets face a dilemma.

Yes, nothing much may be going on — but newspapers and websites still have pages to fill; cable channels still have time on their hands. Using quiet days to focus on, say, international stories or lengthy investigations takes money and resources. The news business is not particularly flush with either.

And so: Studio lights are turned on, commentators take their seats, and the production of inexpensive talk show content is set in motion. The performative politicians return, too. They know a news void when they see one. And they know just how to step into it — with polarizing soundbites devised to garner free media attention from news-starved outlets and their platoons of contributors. Newspaper columnists anxious for something to write about whisper relieved thank-yous.

Soon enough, the danger passes. Editors and producers start to sense boredom creeping in with their audiences, as ratings and clicks decline. Interest wanes, no matter how deep the disaster. Everyone — content creators and consumers — returns to coverage of addictive anger-inducing wedge issues that keep core viewers and readers hooked.

And we’re back to where we started — looking for easy ways to fill the empty spaces: in our media, our politics, and ourselves.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

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