I have been thinking about John Bolaris in the last day or two as I watch nonstop coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Who’s John Bolaris, you might ask? He’s the unfortunate Philadelphia weatherman who received hate mail and even death threats in March 2001 after his dire predictions of a devastating blizzard turned out to be massively overstated.
Well, you could attribute that to Philadelphians taking their weather as seriously as their sports, but the precedent is notable. On the Gulf Coast today, it’s the meteorological equivalent of impending Armageddon, if the cable news networks are to be believed. They sicken me with their 24/7 coverage of misery and mayhem. Yes, it’s a big story; a major American city, and one of its most culturally significant, may be devastated. Yes, the media have an obligation to let people know about loved ones in the area. Still, they go so over the top and whip up such fear that they neglect a key element of their mission, which is to report the news. In so doing, they should help people to understand it. They are not, in this instance. Not only do they relegate themselves to play-by-play announcers as they focus on the storm track, but they miss a key part of the story: that this hurricane might damage or destroy the oil refineries in the area, hastening the rising price of gas. The implications for the economy are ominous.
It is hard to trust the media, and the broadcast media in particular, on this one. They have made so many mistakes in hyping past "storms of the century," and have managed to evade responsibility when nothing occurs, that the trust keeps eroding.
No matter what happens, today we are all John Bolaris.