Laying It On A Little Too Thick

“Advertising is to a genuine article what manure is to land, – it largely increases the product.”― P. T. Barnum

Once upon a time, we talked about weather when the conversation began to lag. Weather was a neutral topic suitable for idle chit chat. It wasn’t a topic for those who were gifted with gab. It was Romeena Ancrum at Mrs. Wiley’s weekly reception. “It’ll be a nice evening if it doesn’t rain. You know, it rained last Saturday.” To which Ernest T. Bass answered for many of us when he said, “I know. I was right there in it.”

Then weather got interesting. After centuries of relative calm, something was different, and our perception of weather began to change also. The science is fascinating. The technology which allows real time monitoring from satellites and Doppler Radar is impressive. Increasingly accurate short term predictions made possible by sophisticated algorithms processed by supercomputers allows anyone with a phone or a computer to have access to more data than a professional meteorologist had 20 years ago.

With interest came popularity, and anything that popular is irresistible to someone seeking to leverage an advantage. After a decade of abuse and misdirection, our opinion on the weather today is often a political litmus test. Every weather disaster and every story of human tragedy (whether weather-related or otherwise) is packaged and resold to feed our insatiable addiction to drama.

Every television station has its own weather celebrities, and we have national weather celebrities too. Some are truly dedicated to their craft, and hold themselves accountable for helping keep people safe.

Others are just celebrities.

I remember when The Weather Channel was a startup that made a great background for a busy day. Their low key weather reports punctuated 24 hours of weather graphics and local forecasts, often with a background of good music. It was weather straight up, backed by sound meteorology and undiluted my much else.

I have no doubt the science is still there, and the budget is significantly bigger since TWC has been sold and resold, existing now as part of the Allen Media Group LLC. The Weather Channel has its own stars, and several of them have national name recognition. We expect to see some of those faces in every major storm, reporting live and braving the elements.

Such was the case during the recent Hurricane, Ida. From a street corner on the Louisiana coast we saw two of TWC’s intrepid reporters, decked out in full rain gear, bracing against the horrific winds, struggling to stand their ground as they demonstrated to their attentive audience just how bad things were. At precisely the wrong moment (for a director who couldn’t yell “cut” during a live report), two guys strolled casually into the shot, seemingly unaware they were in danger of taking flight in the strong wind. One of them was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, his head nonchalantly inclined toward his phone as he strolled by, apparently impervious to the wind.

We have no wish to detract from the actual devastation and loss of life visited upon a large swath of the nation by this dangerous tropical system. The point is, with trust in news media near historic lows, it’s a curious thing when corporate media chooses to dramatize what is already sufficiently dramatic.

The short answer is that truth is not the primary goal of their productions. They are producing a show to sell as a product, and with so many competing shows, each one has to strive to be noticed. Sometimes truth is part of the mix, and trust? They all say they are the most trusted name, but the numbers say otherwise.

We’re not just picking on The Weather Channel here. Frankly, we find them to be more factual and less biased than just about any other major news organization. Unfortunately, one would be hard pressed to find any corporate entertainment peddler which hasn’t been caught embellishing or downright manufacturing stories. It would be wise to assume that everything they serve up is influenced by its entertainment value, even when there is no political or social agenda behind it. Best not to forget that for a moment, because millions of dollars in advertising and serious scientific study goes into getting us to become immersed in their shows, just like the most critically acclaimed video games seek the elusive “immersion” factor wherein the player is so attentive to the game that he forgets it actually is a game.

There is nothing wrong with being immersed in a fantasy to give flight to the imagination. After all, that’s what books did for generations, and still do for some. The problems come when we use the information from these “shows” to inform our take on reality, to judge other people, and to begin to incorporate into our daily lives the drama and the fear that show business uses to capture our attention.

Which brings us back to addiction, which has become a recurrent topic here as peddled information has grown to be a constant presence in our lives. People take drugs to escape reality, or because they do not perceive reality in a way that holds their interest. It can begin with intentions that are purely casual or recreational, but there are no casual encounters with addictive substances.

Let’s be honest. How many times did we check the weather page at work or refresh the radar while Ida was approaching the Louisiana coast? How often do we ingest anger with breakfast and digest worry with dinner because we tell ourselves we need to “be informed.”

Alas, being truly informed takes work. One must find reliable sources, verify and cross reference them and then sift each declaration for bias, all before applying syllogistic reasoning to arrive at a logical conclusion. It’s much easier to just watch the show.

Finally, in all fairness to the guys at the Weather Channel, I suppose it is much safer to do a dramatic enactment of what it’s like to stand in gale force winds than to actually do it, and we know that sometimes you do actually do it. We get the point either way, as long as we’re all clear about what is being staged. Just be careful that you’re not laying it on too thick.

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