NEW YORK — The clouds from Hurricane Irene had barely dissipated before a chorus of critics began suggesting that television networks had gone overboard hyping the storm before and during its march up the East Coast.
For days, The Weather Channel and cable news networks reported on little else.
Ultimately, they were affected by the unpredictability that is the nature of tropical storms. Irene largely spared New York City, where much of the media attention had been focused, while causing significant damage in places where it was unanticipated: Who planned for torrents of water in Brattleboro, Vt.?
One media critic, Howard Kurtz, of The Daily Beast, called the coverage "a hurricane of hype."
Manhattan resident Josh Hull, who left his downtown home to ride out the storm with friends on the Upper East Side, said broadcasters blew the storm way out of proportion.
"I get that news is a business, but drumming up ratings at the expense of 28 million people is beyond the pale," Hull said. "My family, who all live in another part of the country, were worried sick all weekend while I slept right through the worst of it."
The coverage became more a form of entertainment and less of a public resource, said Lise King, a fellow at Harvard University.
"The two agendas cannot co-exist, as one serves to lead citizens into calm action and the other is meant, by nature, to drum up emotional responses in order to keep the viewer tuning in," she said.
Media organizations defended their coverage, in some cases angrily. NBC News anchor Brian Williams recalled talking to a meteorologist from The Weather Channel on Wednesday night and said he had "never heard him so dire." Networks took cues from public officials, like when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered unprecedented evacuations and a full-scale public transportation shutdown in the nation’s largest city.
Criticism that the coverage was overblown is the worst kind of Monday morning quarterbacking, said Phil Griffin, MSNBC chief executive.
"There’s just an unpredictability about this stuff," Griffin said. "Suppose someone tells you there’s a 1 in 10 chance you’re going to have a tire blow out on your car. Are you going to drive home on it, or are you going to fix the tire? You’re probably going to fix the tire."
The perception that the storm wasn’t a bad one came because glass did not come flying down from skyscrapers onto the streets of Manhattan in high winds, he said. There’s a much different perception in flood-ravaged New Jersey towns, for instance, or in the hundreds of thousands of homes without power.
Of course, where was the image of the storm created in the first place?
The Weather Channel began casting aside its regular schedule for near-constant storm updates three days before Irene’s initial landfall on North Carolina. The network has more than 200 meteorologists on staff and worked hard to keep its coverage factual and precise, said Bob Walker, its executive vice president and general manager.
Irene wasn’t downgraded to a tropical storm until Sunday morning, when it hit New York. If it had hit the city with the force of a category 1 or 2 hurricane, the damage there would have been much greater, Walker said.
What complicates matters, particularly for The Weather Channel, is that major stories such as impending hurricanes are great for business. With its focus on Irene, the network tripled its audience over the same time last year.
It’s The Weather Channel, Walker said.
"Had we not been talking about a category 1 or 2 hurricane heading up the East Coast, we would not have been true to our mission," he said.
One television viewer, Brooklyn shirt designer Nechesa Morgan, said she had no problems with television reporting on the storm and preparations for it.
"My issue was how the media turned it into a 24-hour circus that just wouldn’t end," she said.
Williams acknowledged that jumping on big stories to the near-exclusion of everything else is an ongoing issue for news networks: The weekend announcement that the U.S. had killed the No. 2 leader of al-Qaida drew relatively little attention amid the Irene coverage.
"That’s something we struggle with, and that is an obvious casualty of wall-to-wall storm coverage," he said. "But people should remember that the news media did not evacuate lower Manhattan."
Like moist ocean air for a hurricane, politicians provided plenty of fuel for the networks. In the post-Katrina age, no amount of airtime for an officeholder aiming to look prepared for a potential crisis is too much. That’s particularly true for those like Bloomberg, whose administration was criticized in the past for a slow response to a weather crisis (last year’s post-Christmas blizzard).
Government officials and meteorologists are in a no-win situation, said Dave Orth, a network administrator from Pennsaulen, N.J.
"If they underplay it they get hammered, and if they overplay it they get hammered just the same," he said.
Many people are more willing to forgive too much attention than they would too little.
"I ended up with a few more packs of batteries than needed, and I’m pretty sure I will never have to buy a bottle of water again," said Victoria Perricon, an Internet entrepreneur from New York, "but I believe it’s better to be well-prepared."
It’s no help for the media’s image that hurricane reports from the field have themselves become a subject for public mockery. One man in the background of a live Weather Channel report turned his back to the camera and pulled down his pants in a clip that received wide circulation online. There’s also the unnerving feeling that some reporters wouldn’t mind being blown to the ground if it offers street cred.
One Irene-related media criticism that may stick is a perceived New York-centric focus. It’s the city where most media executives, personalities and their families live, and that’s probably why personalities who wouldn’t normally be involved in hurricane coverage — Soledad O’Brien and Ali Velshi of CNN, for example — took to city streets in raincoats.
Mike DeLucia, a New Haven, Conn., resident, said his state’s problems were virtually ignored compared to New York’s. News executives, though, noted the rarity of a hurricane that was predicted to pass right over the nation’s most populous city was itself big news.
MSNBC’s Griffin, for one, has no patience for second-guessers of hurricane coverage.
"It’s a useless exercise," he said.