E.B. White on Hurricanes and Mass Media


A day before Frankenstorm, one could practically see the mainstream media rubbing its fingers together in delight. "At last!" they cried in chorus, "Something to distract us from the electoral snooze-fest permeating the airwaves!" And thusly began 24/7 coverage of issues both related and tangential, like damage, cost, and "HOW WILL OHIO COPE???".

The anticipation was so feverish that, despite this being one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the country, poor Sandy still couldn't live up to expectations (for this one to live up to expectations, Sandy would have needed to produce a hurricane, a snowstorm, an alien invasion and a resurrected Osama Bin Laden).

Well, if it's any consolation, the mainstream media set impossible expectations long before cable news networks had 24 hours of programming to fill. One well-known writer produces the evidence.

E.B. White, known to many of you as "the guy who wrote that book about the pig becoming friends with a spider", was a prolific essayist, contributing regularly to The New Yorker and Harper's Monthly. I bought his book of essays after reading some particularly profound words about NYC (Here is New York) at a time when I still sought my place within this urban Wonderland.

In "The Eye of Edna", 1954, he documents one reporter's abject disappointment at the fact that Hurricane Edna did little more than moisten Long Island:

It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate. During the morning hours, they were having a tough time keeping Edna going at the velocity demanded of emergency broadcasting. I heard one fellow from, I think, Riverhead, Long Island, interviewing his out-of-doors man, who had been sent abroad in a car to look over conditions on the eastern end of the island.

‘How wet would you say the roads were?’ asked the tense voice.

‘They were wet,’ replied the reporter, who seemed to be in a sulk.

‘Would you say the spray from the puddles was dashing up around the mudguards?’ inquired the desperate radioman.

‘Yeah,’ replied the reporter.

It was one of those confused moments, emotionally, when the listener could not be quite sure what position radio was taking — for hurricanes or against them.

A few minutes later, I heard another baffling snatch of dialogue on the air, from another sector — I think it was Martha’s Vineyard.

‘Is it raining hard there?’ asked an eager voice.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Fine!’ exclaimed the first voice, well pleased at having got a correct response…..

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