Take TV disaster coverage with a grain of salt

Published 2:22 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

If you’ve been getting your news about the aftermath of Hurricane Ike from the cable news networks, like CNN or Fox, you think things are a lot worse than they really are. A whole lot worse.

If you’ve been watching cable news, you think everything on the island is a pile of rubble, the same pile of rubble the on-air personalities have been standing in front of for nearly a week now as they did their 60-second “in-depth” reports.

I want to share some things with you, things that may help you put what you hear on the cable news networks in perspective.

First, let me tell you a story.

I was the managing editor of The Galveston Daily News a long time ago, and I ran that paper’s news operation when a relatively mild hurricane whose name I can’t remember visited the island. I know how miserable it is to sleep in (or on) a sleeping bag on the floor of my office when there’s no air conditioning, no refrigeration, no ice, no mayonnaise, no… You get the idea.

For three days back then, we used little portable Honda generators (three of them, I think) to power enough newsroom computers to get the paper built every night. I can still smell the fumes from the engines of those generators.

Before the storm arrived, I remember most of the newsroom taking a break and gathering in a bar on Seawall Boulevard. As we sat looking out over the rough waters of the Gulf, I remember watching a TV news truck pull up across the street. Its crew got out and erected their satellite dish while the on-air guy put on a yellow plastic raincoat and a matching yellow plastic hat. The camera guy set up so the on-air guy’s background was the Gulf.

As they started shooting, the on-air guy leaned into the non-existent wind and held the collar of his yellow raincoat closed against the non-existent rain.

We all thought that was pretty funny back then. But, in retrospect, it wasn’t. Those people were lying. They told a lot of people that things were happening that, in fact, were not happening.

Now let me offer you a report by Dolph Tillotson, absolutely the best newspaperman I’ve ever known, on his return to Galveston Island early this week. Dolph was the publisher in Galveston when I was there and he still is. He’s dead honest. If Dolph says it, you can take it to the bank.

“I spent most of Monday in Galveston. It was the first time I had seen the island since the devastation of Hurricane Ike. As you drive in, the devastation is obvious. Forty-foot boats sit along the roadside, lots of them. Road signs and trees are down. Debris is everywhere, and signs of destruction are unavoidable. It’s depressing.

“But wait. As we drove on, I was actually surprised by the numbers of homes and businesses I saw that experienced relatively little destruction. There is more life in Galveston today than you might imagine.

If you’ve been watching television only, you might think Galveston Island is dead and gone. It is not.

“I ran into businessman Gary Druss, owner of the Commodore Hotel on Seawall Boulevard, and he told me that even that ocean-front business sustained relatively little damage. I drove down Seawall Boulevard, and I was surprised to see a number of businesses with little damage.

“Of course, the devastation was great in some areas. Those included west Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, which appears to have been hit hardest, and the lower levels of businesses in downtown Galveston.

“We’ve got a huge task ahead, no doubt about it. The task is big but not impossible. We can do this. We’ll have to work together, and we’ll have to invest in the area’s future. It will take will, courage, leadership and faith.

“Let’s rebuild. We can do it.”

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index. He can be reached at dsullens@r-cnews.com