Media's evolution alters how we experience 'weather events'

Over the past two weeks -- and at different times over the last 30 years, whenever we had big snowstorms in Maryland -- I've tried to figure out what it is about them that's different than the ones I experienced growing up in another part of the country, where snow was more common but still a "weather event" that raised blood pressures and affected the behavior of the human beings around me.

In the midst of the blizzard of 2010 -- and the major storm that followed a few days later with those wicked winds -- the one thing I kept coming back to was communication. Communication is so 24-7, so fast, so everywhere that we all know when big snow will happen and what's going to be done about it when it does.

I don't mean to be nostalgic, because that suggests that I think things were better in the good old days. I don't. I intend this bit of post-snow reminiscence only as an observation and as a note of how far we've come in a relatively short period of time -- less than 30 years -- mostly for the better, but in some respects for the worse.

It's a mixed bag, isn't it? It's good that we have plenty of warning about big weather. On the other hand, the news media, particularly television, go goofy with it, hype it for commercial gain -- and that easily sets off more panic than necessary.

What did we and our honorable ancestors do in the old days? By that, I mean before cable television, when we had only four channels to chose from and those channels limited their news programming to maybe twice a day. I'm going back to the 1960s and 1970s to make this point -- that wasn't that long ago. I might be wrong, but I don't have the impression that we had quite as much "weather news" back then -- and not as much madness at the mere rumor of snow.

Unless there were major emergencies, I don't recall politicians being as frequently visible as 24-7 television has made them, and all this visibility seems to suggest that the pols are not only responsible for the plowing and cleanup but for the snow itself. The more visible they are, the more we seem to expect of them. The more "weather reporting," the more we focus on snow -- whether 4 inches or 30 inches -- and the less we are able to accept it as a simple fact of life.

Smart pols are hip to all this. They know they serve in the time of 24-7 cable news operations that exploit big weather, so they know they have to deliver, even in unrealistic time frames.

The best part of the news coverage -- TV, radio and newspapers online -- is that it makes people feel connected and comforts us with the knowledge that we're all going through the storm together.

The social networking of weather information and gossip serves the same purpose. It also gives everyone an opportunity -- through Facebook, Twitter, etc. -- to express opinions about the pace of recovery from big snow. Though that excercise has cathartic qualities, I doubt we need 300,000 opinions about how the city of Baltimore is doing with getting streets plowed when most of those highly opinionated people have perspectives limited to their own neighborhoods, even their own block.

But here's something else that has been on my mind since the Super Bowl blizzard, something that might seem obvious to everyone but me: cellular service.

While I'm still in the half-amazed state when it comes to cell phones and smart phones, I realize we are now past the point where just about half the people in this country consider them necessities. With them we work more efficiently, waste less time and eliminate a lot of sources of family worry.

Especially during a "weather event."

The recent blizzard reminded of one that occured when I was a kid, and the memory is vivid because of the fears I associate with it. My father, who had a 60-mile round-trip drive to work each day, got stuck in that blizzard. He was usually home, almost like clockwork, for 6 p.m. supper. But 6 o'clock came and went, then 7 and then 8. The wind shook our house, but inside it was quiet; we were all too worried to speak.

We could not contact my father and, if there was a pay phone on the rural stretch of New England road he drove each day, he probably did not want to stop his car to use it.

We all sat up and worried. There was nothing else to do -- no cell phone for a call or message, no all-weather channel for the latest conditions, no Doppler, no 24-7 news with constant live shots. My father drove a heavy car, a Chrysler Newport, but it didn't have four-wheel drive. He didn't have a locating device in the car either.

He finally plowed into our yard as midnight approached, and our family vigil ended when he pulled open the kitchen door and stepped into the house, wet and cold, stressed and drained.

I thought of that night during the big snows of 2010 -- and how different our world is now. In this extraordinary time we can connect almost all the time, almost any time, with the people we care about most -- especially on those nights when it looks like winter will never end.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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