An ill wind blows really great coverage

Beyond Houston, few had heard of Dan Rather back in 1961. At that time he was a reporter for the local CBS television affiliate, a job a good eight or 10 blocks up from the fast track to media fame and fortune.

Then came Hurricane Carla, a Category 4 monster that so trashed the Texas Gulf Coast that the name was retired and replaced with Carol four years later. Mr. Rather’s reports from the Galveston seawall, TV’s first live hurricane coverage, propelled him to a network position and from there he eventually snagged the coveted role of Walter Cronkite’s replacement.

You young whippersnappers will have to Google “Rather” and “Cronkite.” No, it’s not a Manhattan accounting firm.

OK, Why the history lesson? In part to explain why reporters make such a big deal out of storm coverage. Many an aspiring journalist dreams of riding the winds of a really big storm to stardom, just like your man Dan. True, that’s a long shot at best, but reporters often have wild imaginations.

Uh, wait! No, that’s not what I mean. I’m saying folk who get paid to cover news often long for something really, really new. “New” is three-quarters of the word “news,” but the percentage of new stuff in news can be considerably lower.

Consider the coverage of the great Gulf oil disaster. How many ways can you describe it? “The crude keeps flowing like beer at a frat party. Like gas during a Hummer fill up. Like noses in a day care center.”

The economy? How many times can you bounce back and forth from detecting “faint signs of hope” to seeing “disappointing results” before flipping to Judge Judy?

You tell me, which grabs ya?

“Well, Bill, we’re seeing some interesting, if inconclusive, signs that July’s orders for durable goods, while neither robust nor dismal, may or may not reflect what some institutional investors believe to be…”

Or, “Are you an idiot? Don’t talk when I’m talking! What were you thinking?”

A storm is immediate and compelling. OK, maybe not so compelling when it fails to live up to the hype ¬­– did I say hype? I mean expectations — such as that flash in the pan Earl.

One minute he’s a whirling, roaring Category Infinity cyclone of death and then — poof! — he’s little more than the reason some swells on Martha’s Vineyard whine about wet golf shoes.

No, no, no, no, no, I’m not wishing for wide scale destruction just because it’s more interesting than, say, a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on an application for an as-built deck on a non-conforming lot. Believe me, I’ve no desire to live in a town crisscrossed by uprooted oaks and powerless power lines, eating nothing but peanut butter and saltines for 10 days straight while wondering if my roof did indeed make it, by sea or by sky, to New London or thereabouts.

The thing is, storms are news, or should I say can be news. Some 14 years ago this week, this publication covered the passing of Hurricane Edouard under this headline: “Ouat a Ouimp.”

Can’t recall going out in that, but do remember quite clearly the Mrs. Kelly’s unequivocal admonition close to two decades ago against my heading out to take pictures of Hurricane Bob’s aftermath before the winds had settled down.

Eventually I came to share her cautious, conservative outlook when a section of tin roofing the size of a picnic table cartwheeled across the Main Road in Peconic at eye level no more than 10 feet from my windshield.

You know, maybe I should turn back.

Ah. Now I know why “Are you an idiot?” and “Don’t talk when I’m talking” and “What were you thinking?” sound so familiar.

Tim Kelly is the editor of The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 238.