Is pleasant summer weather really newsworthy?

July 19, 2014

The Israelis and Palestinians have opened a new, bloody chapter in their ongoing conflict, there’s a humanitarian crisis on our southern border and Capitol Hill is trapped in its usual paralysis.

So what was the lead story on “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” one night last week? The polar vortex was returning!

No, the return of this “polar vortex” was not a cue to rev up the snowblowers and dust off the shovels for an unprecedented blast of winter in July. All it meant was that, for a couple of days at least, some parts of the Midwest and East Coast would be enjoying pleasingly temperate summer weather. Daytime highs would be in the 70s, with nighttime lows in the 50s or even 40s. With low humidity to boot.

Heavens! One expected weatherman Al Roker to advise immediate preparedness measures, like keeping a light jacket close at hand or turning off the air conditioning at night.

Daytime highs in July reaching the 70s in this region is hardly an epoch-making development (and, a thousand times no, it’s not a sign that global warming is a hoax). Now, if we had a July like one Britain had in the 1980s where highs never made it over 55 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire month, then, yes, that would be a story. But summertime temperatures staying out of the 80s for a spell? That would be something to mention at 6:56 p.m., just before Brian Williams wishes us all a good night.

Rushmore-worthy figures of television news like Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley would have done that, but television news has changed considerably and shaved away a good bit of seriousness in the days since those august figures helped set the national agenda. Certainly owing no small debt to the Weather Channel, obsessive reporting on meteorological fluctuations has come to dominate television news outlets, both national and local. If a line of severe storms that might, just might, spawn a tornado comes sweeping through the region, you can count on local television stations to pre-empt programming for images of green, yellow and red blobs of precipitation advancing across the map.

Sure, some of this weather coverage is warranted, particularly when truly dangerous storms are within the vicinity. But do we really need to go to the “Severe Weather Center,” rely on the “Storm Team” or hang on to every word from “Blizzard Bill” when temperatures are just going to be 10 degrees cooler than normal?

According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, four in 10 stories on local television newscasts across the country were about the weather. Coverage of politics and government, by comparison, now takes up a paltry 3 percent of local newscasts.

“For some time, television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government,” the report states, “and it appears that advice is being taken.”

If anyone is hoping for buttoned-down seriousness to return to television news, you’re better off waiting for, well, hell to freeze over. Last year, the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera launched a U.S. network awash in money, talent filched from other networks and a high-minded sense of purpose. It has done some exemplary work, particularly on the players and stakes in the Middle East, providing depth and context that is not often found elsewhere on American television. But almost no one here has seen it. The ratings have been lower than the cable public access channels where bake sales and fish fries are advertised.

The weather figures in our daily lives, as it has since the time our distant ancestors blamed a displeased Thor for storms or were certain Poseidon brought on floods. But so does what happens at city hall. And, unlike the weather, that’s something we have the power to fix.



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