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TV Weather Forecasters Force the Snow/Danger Drumbeat

By Ben L. Kaufman · February 17th, 2010 · On Second Thought

True to their tribe, local TV forecasters created as much anxiety as possible about a storm moving into our region. Day after day during the first week of February, we learned nothing new from redundant presentations and banter with anchors.

Each day, we heard again how the snow would begin in earnest Friday night and end by noon Saturday. On-screen computer models demonstrated TV’s potential for visuals and how a simple forecast wastes it.

It was like a sermon: The more fearful their ceaseless drumming makes us, the likelier we are to stay tuned for redemption. Having been frightened into hoarding sliced white bread, we live in anticipation of the moment their computers assure our survival.

The Enquirer, with a lighter touch, posted an online album of Jim Borgman’s snow day cartoons, including the famous response to the possible dusting by morning: “We’re all going to die.”

And if we don’t believe the forecasters, there always are the salt truck drivers and school officials who tell us how they’re preparing for the worst ... based on what the forecasters tell them. Talk about a snake eating its tail.

That the forecasters couldn’t agree on how much snow we’d get is no problem. With weather, there always will be uncertainty. I know. I’m from Minnesota. We never knew if Opening Day would require seats to be wiped down or dug out.

Tristate forecasters also predicted more snow last week without drama and mind-numbing repetition. In each case, the snow arrived and quit as predicted.

An alternative to the fear-mongering is a weather radio. It’s good for more than tornado warnings. Last Monday, the weather radio siren alerted us to the National Weather Service decision to ratchet up winter storm watch into a warning that we’ll get a few more inches of snow and possibly some rain in the next 48 hours. We did.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Snow brought good news twice. Our Enquirer/New York Times deliveryman came through regardless of the weather. And I received this curious online prompt: “Snow is coming! Enjoy your complimentary e-edition of The Enquirer.” I did. It was easy to use, a digital version of the Feb. 9 and 10 papers, available at 5:30 a.m. each day, even before home deliveries hit the steps. It was a genuine freebie with a perfect sense of timing. The site displayed the paper’s modern logo and urged me, “Enjoy your complimentary e-edition. Due to the approaching winter storm forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday in our region, we want to assure you we will do all we can to deliver The Enquirer to you Tuesday and Wednesday morning, according to our standard delivery deadlines.”

Moreover, the opt-out was clearly explained. If you’ve ever tried to unsubscribe from any site, you know how difficult that can be. More than once, I’ve yearned for a virtual wooden stake to drive through the sender’s server. The Enquirer turned that on its head. Here is our offer. Enjoy. Here’s how to say, "No thank you." Smart.

• Anyone can call themselves weather forecaster or meteorologist. At local TV stations, it’s up to management; there is no professional standard or state licensing. The American Meteorological Society certifies candidates who meet its educational and professional standards. At AMS, Kelly Garvey Savoie told me that one way to appraise forecasters’ qualifications is to look at bios they post on local TV station web sites. If they have AMS certification, it’ll be there, she said. Ditto National Weather Association certification.

Some Tristate TV forecasters’ bios don’t mention certifications. Some Tristate forecasters say they have undergrad or graduate degrees in meteorology or related subjects, and some don’t. As for long-range forecasts, AMS’ Savoie said anything longer than three days “and they’re just guessing.” AMS has no police powers unless someone falsely claims to be AMS certified, she added. “Then our lawyers write them a letter.”

• I’ve never understood why TV assignment desks send crews to Fountain Square, Hamilton, Harrison and other spots to tell us it’s snowing and blowing during snow storms. “This is Suzi Gudkopi, reporting live from Mason.” Is it possible that viewers don’t know that parking lots are icy and that the white stuff is snow? How about going to Action Weather Window and looking outside?

I don’t wish anyone ill, but I’d enjoy a bout of schadenfreud if KRUD-TV showed a competitor’s crew standing by their van where it skidded off an icy freeway after saying authorities want us to stay off the roads. It has the same mindless quality as sending a weather reporter south to the water’s edge to tell us a hurricane is coming.

• At least our local forecasters haven’t overtly taken sides on-air in the climate change debate. That’s happening elsewhere. Here, we have to be satisfied with talk show hosts, guests and callers angrily flaunting their ignorance and distrust of science with such non sequiturs as, “If it’s global warming, explain these snow storms!” A little research would show that climatologists say that global warming will bring more severe, less predictable weather.

It’s fascinating how skeptics and deniers grasp at individual weather events to prove anything about climate.

Scientists on all sides of the climate change argument agree that individual events prove nothing. The ugliest part of this rebellion against science — and it’s not limited to weather/climate — is how it affects public policy through news media echo chambers.

• One of the truly scary realities is that for too many Americans the closest we get to someone explaining science is the local TV weather forecaster. Maybe the star performing in front of computer-generated maps is a meteorologist, maybe not. A climatologist? Very, very unlikely; climate is not the same as weather.

A recent study finds a frightening number of TV weather forecasters hostile or unduly skeptical to the scientific consensus about worldwide climate change and the likelihood that humans contribute to the change. Kris Wilson, an Emory University journalism lecturer and a former TV news director and weatherman, surveyed a group of TV meteorologists, asking them to respond to Weather Channel founder John Coleman’s claim that global warming was a “scam.”

As reported in Columbia Journalism Review, 29 percent of the 121 meteorologists who replied agreed with Coleman — not that global warming was unproven or unlikely, but that it was a scam. Just 24 percent believed that humans were responsible for most of the change in climate over the past half century — half were sure this wasn’t true, and another quarter were “neutral” on the issue. And a further irony, as respected as San Diego’s Coleman is, his academic training is in ... mid-20th Century journalism.

• I accept the judgment of the global scientific establishments that the earth’s climate is changing and the change will make it warmer than it has been in centuries. There have been warming and cooling periods in the past: Greenland wasn’t named for developer Norm Green, and I wouldn’t try to farm there today.

I accept the uncertainties of science — that’s why it’s not called religion — and the possibility of error, sloth and fraud. I accept the fact that there are scientists of many disciplines that have not embraced global warming as a byproduct of human activity. And I rejoice in the skewering and embarrassment of scientists who use their prominence to marginalize or silence scientific colleagues who dissent from the developing conventional wisdom.

So how do we know all of this? The mainstream news media. This is especially true of the Brits who know a great story when they see it. Leaked emails, sloppy sourcing and editing of influential articles in peer reviewed journals and some really dirty laundry hung out for all to see. Does any of this disprove the evidence of global warming? No. Does it encourage a skeptical rather than bandwagon response to inferences drawn from the evidence? Yes.

• Lovely white “paper” birch around our cabin in northern Ontario are dying. Logs reveal the invasion of bugs that we didn’t see 30 years ago when we bought the place. This is the climate where paper birch are native. Their death is coincidental with reported global warming. So are the almost snowless winters that drive snowmobile dealers out of business. I’m open to other explanations, and you’ll note that I use the term “coincidental” rather than “caused.” There is change. Is it weather or climate? I’m listening.

• Another case of refusal to accept scientific evidence involves British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 article in the journal Lancet blamed children’s autism on the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) injection. This has become a belief held with religious fervor by many parents despite years of population and medical studies that show no causal relationship. The news media have been complicit in this from the start. Worse, many children are denied immunizations by well-meaning parents and putting each other at risk.

Now an investigation by Britain’s General Medical Council has found fatal flaws in the original study and ethical breaches by Wakefield. It said he was “dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain of children.” It was not clear whether Wakefield, now in the U.S., has lost his British medical credentials. So profound were his errors and misrepresentations that Lancet has taken the unusual step of withdrawing the article. It’s another way of saying the contents “were utterly false.”

That it took the Lancet so long does nothing to enhance that journal’s dignity. One can only wonder how Wakefield’s article survived the Lancet’s editing process. When questions arose in 2004, Lancet asked the Royal Free Hospital to investigate the research done there. The self-investigation found no problems. It took the General Medical Council finally to blow the whistle.

This matters because infectious diseases spread where there is no “herd immunity.” That exists where so many people have been immunized that the disease can't leap from person to person. Amerindians had no immunity to measles or smallpox brought by Europeans. Children in school and students in college dorms are vulnerable if too few have been immunized. That’s why we get seasonal and H1N1 shots: to create herd immunity.

Parents who cling to the MMR explanation damn the General Medical Council, Lancet and Brian Deer, the investigative reporter for London’s Sunday Times who wouldn’t let go. This is the same paper that flouted British press law to expose the unspeakable treatment of Thalidomide victims.

• What could have been a saccharine feel-good cliche became fine storytelling in the hands of Enquirer veteran Michael Clark. No fancy writing. Details and facts drove his story about the survival of a West Chester couple, poisoned at home by carbon monoxide. Clark’s story topped the Local Life section with a color photo. Online at the Enquirer’s web site? A bloodless Associated Press version.

The Enquirer’s Dan Horn reminds us that Hamilton County clerks issue arrest warrants at the request of private individuals. It’s one of those oppressive and legally dubious “we’ve always done it that way” local practices. The choice quote came from Charlie Rubenstein, the city of Cincinnati's chief assistant prosecutor, who said that few in law enforcement realized the law changed in 2006. "It sort of got enacted without anybody noticing," Rubenstein said. Another feather in the cap of ever-alert city lawyers.

• Here’s a business story for someone: Who programs nonprofits’ telephone solicitations to start after a measurable silence on the line? Talk about warning recipients that they’re going to be asked for money. Then after the callers ask for someone by name and are challenged, “Who’s calling?” the answer usually is, “I’m calling from an organization that XXX supports.” Hang up time. The delay says you want money. The caller’s slimy refusal to say who they are should assure failure.

• Ethan Bronner is The New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. His son has joined the Israel Defense Force. The paper’s ombudsman agrees with others calling for Bronner to be reassigned while his son is in the Israeli military. The Times ownership is dominated by a Jewish family — that’s no secret. Its influential coverage of the Middle East is endlessly picked at by everyone. Bronner’s son created an impossible conflict of interest for his father, regardless of how fine a Timesman Bronner is. This goes beyond the omnipresent fault-finding with every journalist who reports from Israel.

• Years ago, The Enquirer sent me to the Middle East to cover the return of the first captured land to Egypt. A senior Israeli press guy, a Michigan Jew who immigrated to Israel, noted that I was not there with a Jewish tour group and hoped aloud that I wasn’t one of those self-hating Jews who’d “bend over backwards” to be fair to the Arabs. There is no way to argue with that mindset. I gave him the standard response: "Just read my stuff.” Bronner’s response to the Times ombudsman was more eloquent, but similar: "I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography. Either you are the kind of person whose intellectual independence and journalistic integrity can be trusted to do the work we do at The Times, or you are not."

The Nation has a fascinating article about ways that Ohio and other coal-dependent states can turn now-wasted heat, steam, etc., into huge amounts of affordable electricity. Reporter Lisa Margonelli suggests this is a better option than some costly “green” technologies and, however nasty the coal cycle might be, it makes the most of a reality that’s not going away. I like The Nation’s approach: If “green” doesn’t command sufficient support, go “grey.” In short, reuse more energy in more creative ways. It can save building new power plants, cut harmful emissions and probably draw political support from otherwise hostile camps.

• Nancy Zimpher, who proved that the cock of the walk was a hen at the University of Cincinnati, is doing the same thing to the deeply troubled basketball program at Binghamton, N.Y. Zimpher, chancellor of the entire New York state system, found problems well beyond a troublesome coach and thuggish players. The New York Times is covering it on page 1.

• The coolest guys in Rome when I worked there were paparazzi with their Rolleiflex cameras and electronic flashguns, always on the hunt for stars and starlets or the rich and famous of Italian society misbehaving. Often in pairs, one paparazzo piloted the Vespa with Roman panache while the other rode pillion and shot the photos for insatiable popular publications. Not a few photographed their subjects assaulting them or their competitors. They take their name from Paparazzo, the shooter in Fellini's wonderful 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The role reportedly could have been Felice Quinto’s, who pioneered this art form from his Moto Guzzi motorcycle. He turned Fellini down; freelance photos paid better than the on-screen role. Eventually Quinto married an American, moved to the U.S. and worked for the AP. He never lost his touch: He shot Pope Paul VI’s body being measured for a casket.

• “At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without universal health insurance. Health Insurance is like elementary education. To function properly, it must be universal, and to be universal it must be obligatory. Certain interests which think they would be adversely affected by health insurance have made the specious plea that it is an un-American interference with liberty. According to the logic of those now shedding crocodile tears, we ought, in order to remain truly American and truly free, retain the previous liberties of our people to be illiterate, to suffer accidents without indemnification, as well as to be sick without indemnification. It is by the compelling hand of the law that society secures liberation from the evils of crime, vice, ignorance, accidents, unemployment, invalidity and disease.” LaFollette’s Weekly Magazine, January 1917, as quoted in The Progressive centennial edition.



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