ALFRED, N.Y. — Weather is America's top terrorist. When it comes to inflicting harm on innocent lives, nature's fury is far more potent than Al Qaeda's.
This is the kind of over-the-top message the media impart to the US public. Terrorists may be out there somewhere, but the weather is everywhere, all the time, and news about it is almost always dreadful. National Geographic's August cover story reported on "Super Storms: No end in sight." In April, USA Today assessed weather and other natural disaster risks for each state in a two-page color spread, asking, "Is there anywhere safe to live?" The answer: No state is risk-free, but everyone should avoid Texas and consider moving to Nevada.
The chief culprit, however, is The Weather Channel (TWC), that cable staple found in about 90 million homes. The channel's "weathertainment" thrives on fear, in the guise of objective reporting. The Weather Channel has rightfully earned a reputation for careful, up-to-date weather forecasting, and its storm warnings have arguably saved lives. But it feeds our worries with a constant dose of weather dramas each night in which all-powerful forces of nature wreak havoc on average people: Storm Stories, Animal Storm Stories, Coast Guard Storm Stories, Surviving the Elements, Full Force Nature, and the heavily promoted, It Could Happen Tomorrow.
With a telegenic team of weathercasters, TWC markets weather – dramatically packaged into tidy segments, and interrupted by product advertisements as it builds viewership, and our worries.
Since June 1, when the hurricane season began with predictions of eight to 10 hurricanes, four to six of them major, TWC has been all dressed up with nowhere to go, weatherwise. Ernesto nearly left TWC high and dry. The storm was a hurricane for only a day, near Haiti; it then crossed Flori-da and came ashore again in North Carolina, still as a tropical storm. Stormcasters for TWC were in high gear to tell us how bad things would be. But after Ernesto left only inches of rain and relatively minor flooding, they had to stretch for much to report.
Before 9/11, the US was described as having a culture of fear, with television a major cause. TV induces a "mean-world syndrome," said the late George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. The Weather Channel contributes subtly to this by creating a "mean-weather-world syndrome" – generalized anxiety increased by relentless extreme-weather stories.
Those who suffer most from the constant dose of weather worry are the elderly, ill, and shut-ins, many of whom watch TV constantly. What they get from TWC is enough worrisome information to flood a living room. Don't risk paralysis by fear. Confront this weathertainment. Here's how:
•Reduce exposure to extreme weather information. Don't OD on TWC. TWC is pushing weathertainment as hard as any channel sells a product, and most of what they offer, we don't need. A count of lightning strikes per hour in Topeka, Kan., matters only if you live in Topeka.
•Limit weather consumption to outdoor walks, "Local on the 8s," and brief weather segments on the local news.
•Recall that we managed well enough before TWC. We didn't spend a week anxiously watching a radar map as a bright orange, swirling blob approached.
•Keep the basics on hand. A good umbrella, fresh batteries, candles, and a supply of water and canned food will suffice for all but the worst weather disasters. If a storm knocks the power out, a deck of cards or a good book will help pass countless hours, no batteries required.
•Most important, stay in touch with neighbors, friends, and relatives about emergency weather plans. Volunteer for emergency preparedness groups. Be connected, not isolated.
"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," Mark Twain's friend Charles Dudley Warner reportedly said. Today, because of TV's powerful weather images, everybody talks about it even more. So it's more important than ever to manage our weather worries, not succumb to them.
• Robert Myers teaches cultural anthropology at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., and has survived several hurricanes in both Virginia and North Carolina.