IF A TREE falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? I think I know the answer to that oldie now.
There's always someone there. Nothing can happen anywhere on earth today without being on television. No tree can fall, nor sparrow, unobserved, unheard.
This great insight came to me while I was watching The Weather Channel the past three days. Hurricane Emily's slow, ominous progress up the Eastern Seaboard was photographed and reproduced hour-by-hour and mile-by-mile in almost intimate detail. There was never a moment when someone at that channel or the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., did not have an eye on the storm.
The networks, too, produced lots of coverage of Emily. (Baltimore and Washington broadcasters showed lots of pictures from Ocean City, too, where, of course, the hurricane never arrived.) My favorite moment came when Harry Smith of CBS's "This Morning" show interviewed Dan Rather of CBS's "Evening News" on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
They were both in their best Banana Republic "assignment hurricane" togs. One said to the other, gravely, "We don't want to communicate concern, but . . ."
But concern is precisely what they wanted to communicate. Concern is what brought them there. Disasters attract audiences. Anchormen go there not because they have experience in covering disasters and are therefore the best correspondents the networks have to do the job but to keep themselves before the enlarged concerned audience.
(Actually, CBS hired Rather back in 1961 because of his coverage of Hurricane Carla for a Houston station. He had his crew photograph him rescuing a marooned horse. But the general point is still valid.)
Anchors and other correspondents probably did not communicate concern half as much as did a couple of other things people saw on television this week. One was Bob Sheets of the Hurricane Center predicting with Jeanne Dixonish authority where Emily was going to crash ashore. The other was repeated use on news shows of film showing the damage done by last year's killer Hurricane Andrew in South Florida. Public television even showed a special program on Andrew Tuesday.
These things motivated people to evacuate the Outer Banks. About 80 percent of the 150,000 folks in Dare County, N.C., fled the coast.
So why did so few people evacuate Ocean City? They have cable. They saw Dan and Harry and Dr. Sheets. They heard Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell's appeal for voluntary evacuation. But only about 15 percent of O.C. vacationers fled inland.
The explanation is that the Outer Banks were a certain target of Emily, but Dr. Sheets said there was only one chance in three that Ocean City would get hit. People who buy lottery tickets where the chances of winning are only about one in a million think a 67 percent chance is a cinch.