Killer 'blizzard' a perfect storm of media hype
This long holiday weekend, as we pause to ponder the many things for which we are truly thankful, certainly right at the top of that list would be: "comfortable, moderately priced slacks with an adjustable waistband."
But just below that, we would also have to place: "Civilization as we now know it."
Because, when you stop to think about it, we came precariously close to losing it all this past week.
Enter "The Great Blizzard of 2010."
Talk about your harrowing ordeals. For days here in Utah, we were subjected to a major winter snow job, with sustained, howling gusts in excess of 80 mph.
We're speaking, of course, of all that hot air emanating from the TV news studios. The storm itself only lasted an hour or two.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: For the remainder of this column, it would help in the transmission of sarcasm if, each time you read the word "blizzard," you used the first two fingers on each hand to make the "air quotes" sign.)
In the days leading up to the "blizzard," weatherpersons repeatedly warned us that a major winter storm was bearing down on Utah, with the possibility of death, destruction and noticeably longer checkout lines.
Well, in the wake of Tuesday's alleged storm, today we present a special holiday edition of The Media Speculum, the every-so-often feature that probes the fascinating world of journalism and mass communication.
The question facing The Media Speculum today is: "Did certain members of the mainstream media go overboard with the pre-blizzard hype last week?"
To answer that question, we need only look at the sheepish and/or defensive way in which the local TV weatherfolk were acting the next morning.
One repeatedly insisted that "We never said there'd be a lot of snow with this storm, only three to six inches." (True enough. But it was the way in which they explained the three to six inches would be delivered -- horizontally, with a vengeance -- that had most Utahns worried.)
Another morning-after weatherologist felt the need to repeatedly remind viewers of the National Weather Service's official definition of "blizzard" -- a winter storm, lasting a minimum of three hours, featuring "sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher, with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less" -- pointing out that, technically, Tuesday night's storm was indeed a "blizzard" because it met those minimum requirements.
Hmmmm, yes. A "blizzard" on a technicality. Certainly SOUNDS frightening, doesn't it?
OK, look. Nobody's blaming our weatherpeeps for all of this. After all, hindsight is 20/20, and weather prediction is not an exact science. And, contrary to popular belief, this was not some plot by the media to sell generators, or snowblowers, or cases of Little Debbie snack cakes (which was The Media Speculum's own personal way of preparing for last Tuesday's killer "blizzard").
Rather, The Media Speculum knows exactly why weatherpeople made such a big deal out of Tuesday's "blizzard." These people are forecasting weather in Utah, of all places. It's the second driest state in the union. Which means it's the second-boringest place to predict weather.
Most weeks, our five-day forecasts look like one of those Andy Warhol prints that just repeats the same image over and over. Summers are, in general, dry and warm. Winters are, for the most part, hazy temperature inversions punctuated by the occasional cold front. No hurricanes. No tornadoes. And, in an ordinary winter, nothing that could even be remotely construed as a "blizzard."
So when "Bobo" (The Media Speculum believes we should be able to name our winter storms, just like they name hurricanes) came down the pike, local forecasters saw the chance to make the weather exciting for once.
My wife called me on Tuesday afternoon, just an hour or two before Bobo hit.
"Guess where I am right now," she said.
"Getting medical implants?" I ventured.
"No, silly. I'm at Smith's Food King, with fully three-fourths of the rest of the population of Utah. Every checkstand in the store is open, and I'm the fifth person in my line. I've never seen anything like it."
It was a run on the grocery store, fueled by Utahns worried that, with Thanksgiving only two days away and a mighty "blizzard" taking aim on the state, there might be a crippling shortage of cranberry sauce.
Despite the hype, The Great "Blizzard" of 2010 will be remembered for one highly unusual meteorological phenomenon, pointed out by a co-worker just hours before it hit:
The storm actually had its very own Twitter account, and was tweeting regularly on its progress.
The National Weather Service estimates a 30 percent chance of contacting Mark Saal at 801-625-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.