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Published:September 26th, 2005 05:22 EST
HA HA, Made You Look! Houston, You Got  Punk'ed.

HA HA, Made You Look! Houston, You Got Punk'ed.

By Sean Stubblefield

As Hurricane Rita approached Houston Texas, the news media made it seem as if the end of the world was at hand for many people near the Texas coastline. I think a case can be made that Hurricane Rita, and to some extent Katrina, has been misrepresented and blown out of proportion in the news. Maybe the real story to be found in the Hurricane Rita debacle is the enormous and wide spread fear response it inspired in many Houston residents, and the news media`s part in influencing that reaction. Many people heard hurricane " and began to panic and over-react, with visions of Hurricane Katrina trouncing in their heads. 

Store shelves and gas pumps were emptied, and businesses closed 2 days before the storm was scheduled to hit.

There were many people who left town who really didn`t need to, and even before there were genuine signs of imminent and certain danger that would necessitate leaving, or even going to ground ". This mass exodus of people escaping " the path of the hurricane at the same time caused a huge traffic log jam that lasted several hours, with some vehicles stalling due to running out of gas and overheating.

Well, duh! What did they expect, everyone leaving at the same time?

All the panic in the air led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. People expected danger, and so their thoughts made it real to them, or seem real.

Considering the possibility of a category 4 or 5 hurricane reaching land, evacuating coastal cities sooner rather than later " just in case-- I could justify and understand, from a logistic standpoint, but not an immediate and simultaneous evacuation of cities further inland like Houston when there was no clear and present danger.

I was among the relatively few who chose to stay in Houston.

With almost no cars on the city streets as the hurricane approached and the people left, there was an ominous sense of foreboding. As I looked upon the unusually empty streets, the closed shops and restaurants, the unoccupied and barricaded homes, there was a surreal and eerie last man on earth " vibe in the air.

Rather than emphasize and urge a more prudent wait and see " approach " considering the uncertain and fluctuating nature of this hurricane, the news media promoted a better safe than sorry " approach, advising people to leave regardless. They told people " explicitly and implicitly-- to be afraid and worried, instead of calm and vigilant. Deliberately or not (maybe both), they instilled and encouraged fear in the public.

We were daily inundated with so many reports and images of Hurricane Katrina and its hazardous effects on New Orleans " authentic and exaggerated-- that an automated and almost psychosomatic fear of hurricanes was subconsciously manufactured.

With Rita coming so soon after Katrina, similarly dramatized and accentuated in our thoughts, it`s no wonder that so many people became twitchy and trepidatious.

The news media only exacerbated an already tense situation, adding fuel to the fire with their constant deluge of doom and gloom. It was as if these frightened people in the projected path of Rita had never experienced an actual hurricane, and their only knowledge of them was derived from the ghost stories shown on TV by the news media.

Our society has become so intent on, and accustomed to, getting out of harm`s way, that we`ve forgotten how to endure harm and suffering, have become unwilling to endure, and incapable of enduring. But that`s another story.

As I watched various local and national news channels reporting on Rita, I noticed a definite flare for the dramatic, but also a discrepancy in reporting.

Anyone watching the news was informed constantly: Warning. The demon beast Katrina has returned!!! It will rain hellfire and brimstone across the land, and destroy us all! Get out while you still can! But don`t worry, we`ve got everything under control.

The environment and attitude of fear was palpable, and it was contagious. Hurricane Rita was promoted as the worst storm this area has ever seen.

The media assumed, and made the public assume, that because Rita was a category 5 three days away, then it was going to be a category 5 at land fall. And when it lessened to a category 4 two days away, then it would be a category 4 at landfall.

All TV channels monitoring the progress of the hurricane and evacuations were sending mixed and embellished messages. The local news stations presented an image of dreadful and solemn importance, while the national news stations often seemed distant and uninvolved, reporting the storm as just another news item.

Every local channel with a news team was showing and telling virtually the exact same things--- repeatedly and redundantly, interrupting and pre-empting all (and I mean ALL) regularly scheduled programming from Thursday night trough Sunday morning, ALL day non-stop minute by minute hurricane coverage. Afterwards, when it was clear that the danger had passed and that essentially nothing terrible had happened, nor was going to happen, they tried to make it appear as if it was more devastating than it really was.

Oh, look ", they would basically say, with alarm, A tree fell over and power is out. "

So desperate were they for anything to report, they leeched-- or latched-- onto an isolated building fire and a bus fire for hours, giving it way more attention than it deserved, attempting to make the effects of Rita look more tragic and destructive than they really were. They wanted to justify all their hyping of Rita, so they looked for any falling leaf they could find and glamorize it into something resembling devastating.

This blatant sensationalism, this irresponsible dramatizing of events, illustrates that what passes for news now is really infotainment. Is it really just a ratings game to them?

They don`t just report the news " they create and invent it if they feel like it, to give them something to do, something to fill air time. Maybe some of them don`t even realize that they do it. However, the News " is, or has become, whatever they happen report on, whatever the news media says is news--- whether it is genuinely newsworthy or not.

After all the fuss, Hurricane Rita ultimately turned out to be a relative non-event. She " was essentially the hurricane that couldn`t. Everyone was surprised that Rita deflated so profoundly, especially with the intensity it achieved en route. After all the hype, I was disappointed, but also relieved. While I never anticipated another Katrina level storm, and so wasn`t really worried, I did expect at least something similar to Tropical Storm Allison, and at most a category 3. Something more than just the moderate rain storm we got. I was in Houston during Allison, and it put on a better show than Rita, featuring heavy flooding in some areas and extensive debris and mild property damage "and significantly more trouble in Houston than Hurricane Rita proved to be. I didn`t even lose power! Not that I wanted to, but it is the principle of the thing.

There was supposed to be a major, severe hurricane.

Friends in Friendswood and League City-- both of which are located closer to the Galveston area coast than Houston-- tell me there was no damage, and that the news of AM radio was as distorted as the television news.

Even if Rita hadn`t changed direction, and had hit Houston directly as expected as a category 3 storm instead of decreasing into a category 1 going inland, it still would not have done near as much damage as advertised in the news.

Something else to be concerned about: will people who live on or near the Texas coast interpret this as the boy who cried wolf ", not take it as seriously as they should, and not take precautions the next time a hurricane approaches? And can we ever really trust the news again? Should we?