High Water/Tall Tales

May 19th, 2011

For those of us who have placed and worked on network and network affiliate stories – by virtue of this column I may have worked on my last one for a while – the manipulation of information and images comes as no surprise. But the magnitude of epidemic airborne disregard for verifiable fact is giving even the hardest of cynics pause.

To see how badly we’ve all been infected, try this little test:

First, consider the truth of your life and the life of this city over the last couple of weeks. Then, consider what you and your friends and family here and around the country have seen reported about this city.

The distance between those two is greater than the expanse of water between here and the Arkansas levee.

As published in The Daily News, May 20, 2011, and in The Memphis News, May 21-27, 2011



Katie Couric told me our daughter was underwater on Mud Island. Wolf Blitzer cut to his man in Memphis, up to his armpits in the Mississippi, giving us the impression that the entire city might be sucking river by morning. National networks reported that the river was (pick one) 4 or 3.4 or 5 or 3 miles wide at Memphis and that it was normally a half-mile or about a mile or only a mile or about half that and that hundreds or thousands or whole neighborhoods or square miles were evacuated or leaving or fleeing for safety or watching their dreams sink or their lives go under.

Or whatever.

Katie was all wet. Our daughter was not. Even as he dripped doom, Wolf's ridiculous ersatz frogman was looking at hundreds of partying Memphians, along with their kids and dogs, high and dry on the riverwalk just above him.

After throwing cold water on Beale Street and downtown and scaring the grits out of everyone who knows anyone in Memphis, the national media packed up their innuendo and moved it downriver.

If what the networks staged to ride the crest of our historic flood was irresponsible, what the local stations did was unconscionable. Without the time and physical constraints of print media, broadcast media can give us facts in real time in the face of panic, show us real danger, and calm us the most when we are most frightened. Instead, they flooded us with grim and threatening hyperbole. They used the very real high water and the very real tragedy of relatively few, thank God, of our citizens to create the impression of an entire city in imminent danger.

Sadly, they do much the same thing every night. They’ve cried wolf, and shot and stabbed the wolf so many times – and this time drowned the wolf – that we’re left with cynical disbelief instead of reliable information.

The day after the crest – the first day when we could look to recovery, be thankful that our safeguards held, and help those in need – at least one station led with an implied epidemic of snakes and spiders.

This is the era of tornadic activity when Dorothy and Toto just had plain ole tornadoes. The news makes us more aware of the exact minute a hailstone may hit Gnatswat and Hogwiggle than it does about, say, the news. Doppler Radar’s gazillion watts have us more concerned about those frightening colors hovering above momma’s house than about anything that should actually, like, concern us.

This just in:

At 6:02, reported as fact, half-truths will reach Gnatswat.

At 6:21, reported as fact, baseless rumor will reach Hogwiggle.

At 10:03, reported as fact, the greater metropolitan area will be immersed in calculated claims of catastrophe.

For the entire viewing area, a major fear warning will be in place until this station’s ability to profit from it lifts.

I’m a Memphian, and Chicken Little anchors the local news. And that’s a fact. 



bernice l tutterow: I so agree with this article Dan.It is most trying and gets so old. If a Natural disaster of major porportions occurs, we, having ignored all the prior ones, will miss a really important message.I don't have an answer, hopefully, I'm not part of the problem.

Joe Callaway: Amen, my friend. Journalism has been turned into the most shameful profession. It has raised the used car salesman to unaccustomed hights of respectability.

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