It’s hurricane season and the all-news TV channels are all over it. Look up the TV listings for Thursday and the listings for CNN say, “Hurricane Florence coverage” in prime time. Fox News and MSNBC are sticking with listings for Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow. But both channels are already brimming with hurricane coverage.
Fair enough. Non-stop natural-disaster coverage is seductive for both the viewer and the broadcasters. Image trumps substance. Language is beggared by the images. But, this time it’s different. Donald Trump is part of the substance of the coverage, and extreme-weather coverage is now extremely political.
As usual, with Hurricane Florence, the description is only in superlatives: the biggest, the strongest, the most deadly, the worst in years. The language matches the language of what passes for political discourse in the United States these days. The President is unhinged; he’s a bully, a coward, a narcissist, a know-nothing. The thesaurus is beggared by the need to nail down the perceived dumbness.
Time was, there was mere weather porn on TV. Before a snowflake falls in the first snow storm of winter, excitable weather reporters tell you what chaos will ensue. In the matter of hurricanes, we all became familiar with rain-sodden, windswept reporters shouting at a camera about how wet and windy it was. As if we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves.
Now, thanks to the chaos that Trump has created, there is, in the United States, a cultural inability to draw clear lines between extreme weather and the presidency. Everything is framed in terms of Trump’s abilities and empathy, or the lack of both.
And it’s not just television. On Wednesday, The Washington Post published an editorial with the headline, “Another hurricane is about to batter our coast. Trump is complicit.” The piece argues that Trump’s skepticism about human influence on climate change makes everything worse, including Florence.
Fox News Channel was all over this development. In a segment, the Post was described as “Billionaire Jeff Bezos’s paper” and a pundit said, “The media won’t give Trump credit for the economy but they will blame him for a hurricane. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Not that Fox News is above linking Hurricane Florence to matters pro-Trump or anti-Trump. On Wednesday morning, Fox News host Bill Hemmer interviewed Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina to discusses the government’s response to the looming hurricane. Burr said it was top-notch readiness. He’d never seen anything like the government’s readiness. Then, with barely a pause, Hemmer asked Burr if there is “hard evidence of collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Burr is on the Senate Intelligence Committee.) Burr said, no, not so far. A ghost of a smile passed over Burr’s face as the collusion question was inserted into the interview.
Meanwhile on CNN, Anderson Cooper put Hurricane Florence in the context of Hurricane Maria last year and interviewed the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz, having her weigh in on Trump’s comments about his administration’s response to Puerto Rico after Maria. It was, as expected, pretty damning commentary.
Now you could say that President Trump inserted himself into the extreme-weather coverage by boasting about his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria. Or you could say that that Trump’s administration made the situation political by transferring almost US$10-million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, that amounts to diverting funds from hurricane relief just as hurricane season is starting. Senator Merkley was interviewed by both CNN and MSNBC. Of course he was.
You could also say that extreme-weather coverage became political coverage during Hurricane Katrina when the lack of response from the Bush administration was part of the story. But this is truly, starkly different. There is a gleeful quality to the insertion of ideology into weather coverage; there is blithe partisanship. Being for or against Trump is now the only common cultural framework in the United States and that is its own kind of destructive storm.