Hurricanes — a reporter’s delight

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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It was a day 20 years or so ago, longer than I care to remember, when sirens began to wail loudly on Prince Philip Parkway just a hundred yards or so from my executive producer office at “Here and Now,” and one of the show’s producers, the droll and irreverent John Furlong, shouted from his desk: “Hey, Bob,  they’re playing our song!”

There may have been the odd person in the newsroom outraged by Furlong’s comical but accurate assessment of journalists’ fondness for tragic events. They were definitely in the minority, the naïve and unrealistic blissfully unwilling to accept (or at least to admit publicly) that human misfortune has always been, and continues to be, a magnet to reporters everywhere. Or perhaps they were just suffering from a serious case of denial about the vulture-like profession they had chosen. Or they may have been simply pious and pure.

So I chuckled to myself last week when I heard at least one reporter tagged by a radio host with the sympathetic adjective of “tireless” as he slogged his way from community to community on the Burin Peninsula, feasting on Igor stories that were as abundant as seal pups in March.

No doubt he was, indeed, exhausted, but he had to have been in reporter heaven as well.

It’s not every week, after all, that journalists have an opportunity to turn their talents — in print, radio or television — to a hurricane.

It was a once-in-a-career opportunity, in all likelihood, and any self-respecting reporter, photographer or cameraman (camerapersons, according to the language police) would have recognized it as such.

In their element

So it was foolish to feel sorry for media types working long days last week.

Most of them, at least those with good unions, were making a fortune in overtime, and did not have to be overly creative or thoughtful as story after story was dumped in their lap, yarns they knew would be gobbled up by a Newfoundland public ravenous for any news connected with Igor. All in all, a pleasurable and ego-boosting notion.

The adventuresome adrenalin was flowing, and the reporters, especially those employed in the boob tube medium, had to be careful not to show just how excited they were to be in the middle of this disaster and how much fun they were having. 

My favourite story concerned a couple getting married in St. John’s and anxious to have the groom’s grandparents in Marystown make it into town for the nuptials.

As the bride described it on radio, a priest brought the grandparents by car as far as he could, another priest was waiting on the other side of a washout to take them on another part of the journey, and then a mountie, on her day off, drove the man and woman right into St. John’s. As the bride recalled in dramatic fashion, as if reading from a screenplay, the ceremony had just started when the door to the church opened, and there appeared, as if by spiritual intervention, Pop and Nan from Marystown.

It’s impossible to fabricate that kind of feel-good, inspirational story. (It also came in handy for two professions that need all the positive public relations they can accumulate: the Catholic clergy, dealing with constant, worldwide revelations of pedophilia and cover-ups that have wound their sickening way to the Pope’s door; and the RCMP, struggling with inner dissension.)

More important job ahead 

But it’s after the fact, after the waters have subsided, the isolated have been reached, after all the human interest stories have been exhausted, that the real work, the harder work, should begin for journalists.

And I’m not talking about using their “star” power to raise money for Igor’s victims, a self promoting campaign that at least one media outlet hinted it would launch (an ethically questionable departure from observer status).

Nope, I’m talking about raising questions about the rescue efforts.

Did they lack immediacy or at least a recognition that an extraordinary event requiring extraordinary response was taking place?

Did the emergency measures organization do its job, or  hand over too much public communication responsibility to politicians, cabinet ministers lacking in expertise, but delighted to be able to grab some headline space?

What did Igor’s victims think of Danny Williams and Steven Harper taking up valuable helicopter time and space during the storm’s aftermath for photo ops?

Why did it take so long for the army to be called in?

All kinds of issues to tackle as Igor continues to “sing our song.”

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: RCMP

Geographic location: Prince Philip Parkway, Newfoundland and Labrador, Marystown

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