David Zurawik

WJZ, WBAL lead way in Saturday coverage of Irene

All of Baltimore's TV stations deserve some credit for trying to provide area residents with the information needed Saturday to make sound decisions about how to best to deal withHurricane Irene.

But once again, there were two tiers of coverage, and, as usual, the top one belonged to WJZ and WBAL, and the other to WBFF and WMAR.


The latter two rarely make the same commitment to major stories as WJZ and WBAL. And I have to say, WJZ really went all out on Irene, getting on the air first and staying straight on without any breaks since at least 2:30 p.m. Saturday, according to my viewing log.

Much praise to Denise Koch and Adam May who stayed strong from 2:30 to 9:10 p.m at the anchor desk. They are still on as I type this post. Koch was an especially steady presence lending a sense of purpose and direction to WJZ's coverage.


And praise also to WJZ management for sticking with coverage of Irene in prime time pre-empting a NFL pre-season game between theNew EnglandPatriots and Detroit Lions.

And allow me an editorial comment: If you are one of the folks who tweeted about how upset you were that your game was pre-empted by WJZ for coverage of storm that had already taken several lives, you need to get a life -- or a brain. Or you need to stop tweeting when you are drunk or stoned. WJZ is trending as I type with some of the most ignorant tweets I have ever read.

This is all I am going to say, folks: The primary job of all news media is to provide citizens with the best information possible so that members of their audiences might make the sound decisions about their lives. Rarely is this more important than during a natural disaster. To abandon Irene coverage for football would have been an egregious failure of a broadcaster's responsibility to its community.

I am not going to criticize WMAR for showing ABC's Little League baseball coverage while WJZ and WBAL were in coverage Saturday afternoon. WBFF was often out of storm coverage, too.

When to go wall-to-wall and how long to stay in rolling coverage is a complicated one, and the ratings usually demonstrate that most viewers are tuned to WJZ or WBAL during such big weather-related stories. Once WBFF and WMAR did commit to coverage Saturday, they did so with their first teams at the anchor desks and in the field -- give them that, at least.

I am inclined to criticize them for not covering all of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Saturday press conferences where important information is usually dispensed. But I have to admit beyond the information, O'Malley does sometimes use the forum for a bit of grandstanding.

The governor was in full Jack Bauer mode Saturday using words like "affirmative" instead of yes and no. When an aide answered one of the governor's questions in too soft a voice, macho-cum-military O'Malley demanded to know if that "was an affirmative."

The governor really went Jack Bauer in his interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer when he commanded the anchorman to tell one of the cable channel's  correspondents, Chris Lawrence, who was reporting from the Chesapeake Bay to "get the hell out of the water."


Lawrence had been standing in the bay a few feet from land to make a point about the weather during his report at 6 p.m. After the report ended, O'Malley was brought on-screen for an interview with Blitzer.

"Hey Wolf, do me a favor. Tell Chris to get the hell out of the water, would you?" O'Malley said right off the bat.

Blitzer, always a professional, said he would pass that message along.

As of the time of this post, O'Malley's administration seemed to be doing a sound job of protecting the citizens of the state. All praise for that. But spare us the showboating.

By the way, Chris Lawrence was part of the first CNN crew that waded into the depths of Hurricane Katrina long before any state, local or federal government officials got their acts together. He was also embedded during the fighting in Iraq.

I think I will take the high road and leave it right there for now.


OK, that's off my chest.

Now, for the best remark by an anchorperson so far today.

Jayne Miller was doing a report from Fells Point interviewing a woman who self-identified as a patron of Ledbetter's, a bar in Fells Point.

After Miller finished interviewing her, the woman essentially refused to leave. She walked out of the shot at first, but then came back, and stood alongside Miller under an umbrella, commenting at one point on Miller's words as the reporter was trying to wrap up her report. The woman seemed to be in a very good mood despite the storm.

Donna Hamilton and Deborah Weiner, who did strong work all day, were at WBAL anchor desk as Miller tossed back to the newsroom.

"Hmmmm, watching the hurricane and serving hurricanes, perhaps, at Ledbetter's," Weiner said with just the right friendly bite.


The moment was amusing, and the woman in the shot seemed like a nice lady.

But I have to say after watching coverage all day and half the night, I am distressed by some of the rude, crude and nasty people I saw trying to get on camera behind reporters -- or, in some cases, actually attempting to disrupt reports with coarse language and gestures.

I think some of those fools must have been the same folks tweeting their self-absorbed, juvenile, I-want-my-amusements complaints about WJZ covering a deadly storm as it bore down on Baltimore rather than a meaningless preseason football game that didn't involve theRavens.

And one last note for all the self-styled wits who want to tweet the same, sorry, cliched comments of ridicule about reporters standing in the storm and trying to talk over the pounding rain and roaring wind: Those reporters, too, are providing useful information for viewers.

Those very wet correspondents are literally putting their bodies on the line to visually show the power of the storm and what it can do to anyone who wanders out into it.

And clearly there are some viewers in Baltimore for whom words of warning are not enough. They have to see it to believe it. And even then, they might still send out an ignorant tweet about it.


You can inform some viewers until the cows come home, but that doesn't mean they will allow themselves to be informed.

(The Baltimore Sun and WJZ have a content sharing agreement.)