Broadcast coverage of hurricanes in post-Andrew Miami has become an exercise in journalistic paranoia. No television news executive with any sense of self-preservation is going to risk being caught by surprise, even if it means abandoning sober judgment in favor of hyperbole. As Channel 10 news director Tom Doerr puts it: "A lot of people feel intense scrutiny is necessary, because if we downplay it and wind up getting hit with another Andrew, none of us have done our jobs."
That sentiment is echoed by a slightly more detached observer, University of Miami communications professor Joe Angotti. "On the one hand, you don't want to alarm people," says Angotti, a veteran network television executive, "but after Andrew, I think the attitude is more like, 'We don't want to not provide info and end up costing lives' A which isn't wrong. With Erin, I saw a lot of things I could be critical of, but based on what I saw, the coverage was far better and less frantic than I would have expected from TV in Miami."
Angotti is quick to acknowledge, though, that frequent "special reports," not to mention continuous coverage, put intense demands on broadcast personnel in the field. The television void must be filled -- with something, with anything. Nowhere was that pressure more evident last week than at the National Hurricane Center, where reporters and crews dispatched for six- and twelve-hour shifts quickly discovered that hard science does not lend itself to hot scoops.
Crowded into the center's "Media/Seminar Room" adjacent to the main operations area, reporters, cameramen, technicians, and producers managed to turn an otherwise comfortable space into a cross between a claustrophobic Radio Shack showroom and a giant Skinner box. It wasn't long before a bunker mentality took hold. "Do we really need to be here?" a TV technician edgily mused late Monday night. "The damn storm's 300 miles out. It's moving ten miles an hour. So we can predict it'll be about 30 miles closer in three hours. But we still won't know exactly where it's going to go. And three hours after those three hours, we can predict it'll be another 30 miles closer. It's like, 'People, it's gonna be awhile before we know what the damn storm is really gonna do.' So what the hell do you say until then?"
What, indeed? At the National Hurricane Center, no one receives exclusive information; all reporters get the same updates simultaneously. But all of them also want a quote or sound bite A essentially the same one, over and over again A from someone in a position of authority. So most of the activity in the media room dealt with the scramble for a talking head. Very little of the effort had to do with actual news. Most of the time there simply wasn't any.
By Tuesday night, for example, Channel 7's Belkys Nerey seemed to be at the end of her rope. "How many times do you want me to keep asking Jerry the same thing?" she queried a supervisor over the phone, referring to the center's deputy director, Jerry Jarrell. "There isn't anything else to ask." Before each brief interview, the gregarious Nerey would turn to her colleagues, throw up her arms, and with an exasperated expression ask, "Okay, anyone got any new questions for Jer?"
Some reporters, a bit stir-crazy or in response to the demands of newsroom bosses, would crowd around the duty meteorologist, who was busy analyzing the data he'd use to plot the path of Hurricane Erin. While the area wasn't officially off-limits, at least one scientist found the rubbernecking journalists to be a serious distraction and demanded they retreat so he could do his work. "As if you guys can't wait for a printout," muttered a center colleague as he passed by.
Others were ordered to search for anything remotely unusual. "Sorry, they said upper-level lows happen all the time," AP reporter Jordan Bressler told his editor via cellular phone. "Yeah, I asked if it was weird. He said no. Sorry." The desperate search for a fresh angle even drove broadcasters to interview other reporters. WIOD interviewed AP. Univisi centsn interviewed WPLG and WSVN. A few stations made mock attempts to interview a dog someone had brought in.
The absence of real news, however, did nothing to inhibit self-promotion. "You can say we're the only South Florida radio station broadcasting live from the National Hurricane Center," suggested Brian Andrews to his producer back at WIOD on Monday night.
On Tuesday morning, tedium was replaced by telecommunications frenzy. By 5:00 a.m. the media room was teeming with broadcast reporters, led by a sudden swarm of radio crews who unapologetically shoved aside other reporters' gear as they scrambled to find open electrical outlets and phone jacks. The hurricane wouldn't make landfall for many hours, many miles away, but at that moment it seemed as though the radio and television jockeys believed it was already crashing through downtown Miami. The center erupted in anarchy.
"The 5:40 time slot's available, does anybody want it?" shouted Ed, the media pool coordinator. Around him, all the talk was technical troubleshooting.
"Somebody switch the switchers!"
"Lee, damn it, we lost video again. . . ."
"You want 5:30? I'll see what I can do."
"Look in the toolbox for. . ."
"Dial in . . ."
"Earpiece is still too loud, Charlie, super loud . . ."
But over the cacophony, one shrill voice prevailed. It belonged to a field producer from NBC. She had been having a loud, tense conversation with someone in New York. Apparently the Today show wanted center director Bob Burpee, but alas, he had already been booked by the competition. This did not make the producer happy, and she didn't care who knew it. "I've got an executive producer in New York screaming at me that Burpee isn't on the screen!" she hollered at Frank Lepore, the center's public affairs officer.
"We told NBC last night it wasn't going to happen," Lepore responded.
"Y'know, I'm getting a lot of shit for this!" she loudly shot back.
Lepore leaned forward. "Cool down," he said calmly but firmly, "because I'm not putting up with this shit."
That corner of the room grew quiet very quickly -- but only briefly. One wag chuckled: "All that over Burpee."
As the hours dragged on, so did the informal debate about Bob Burpee. What else was there to talk about? "We have to be diplomatic about this," a local TV reporter cautiously said of the center's director. "Let's just say he's no Neil Frank. Or Bob Sheets, for that matter."
"Hey, be fair, Sheets wasn't much better when he started out," a technician noted. "I mean, this guy knows his stuff. He'll get better."
Another TV reporter seemed skeptical. "He can't speak, for God's sake," she said.
"No, he can, he just sounds weird," a print reporter chimed in. "Kind of like a cross between Dennis Weaver and the guy in those Motel 6 commercials. You know, those ones where he says, 'And we'll leave the light on for ya.'"
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"Jerry's where it's at," a photographer said, referring to deputy director Jarrell. "Jerry's okay. You can say 'Boo' and he'll stay there and won't freak. But the other guy, he needs help."
"Burpee kind of burps out his words," another opined. "At least Jarrell can talk. He's also more interesting to watch. When he's not talking to someone, he just sits there with this kind of sad expression, looking like a hamster that's had its wheel taken away. Then someone cues him and he sort of clicks on."
Early in the weather watch, consensus did seem to hold that Jarrell had a better on-camera presence. But by Wednesday most agreed that Burpee was becoming more media savvy. He began ending his generic updates by pointing to the camera and saying, "Back to you." And according to Channel 10's Ana Azcuy, Burpee had even used the term "sound bite" in conversation. "If he knows what a sound bite is," she noted, "he's got half the battle won already."
Azcuy may not have realized it, but with that quip she provided the perfect image: A hapless Burpee, confounded by the need to create the illusion of news, is saved by his discovery of a potent weapon, the sound bite A precisely the tool for harried news sources when there is, in fact, no news.