Journalists Snow Public with Avalanche of Warming Reports

     “The weather outside is frightful.” That used to mean something ominous – like the dreaded four-letter word “snow.”

     Now “frightful” has come to describe a warm, spring-like day filled with golfers and Frisbee players. And the quote above wasn’t just a song reference, it was an actual Washington Post headline from January 8. For several days, the Northeast enjoyed a wonderful warm spell that hit 70 degrees in both the nation’s capital and New York City according to the Weather Channel.

     I’m having a hot flash just thinking about it.

     Apparently, I’m not the only one. Manny Fernandez of The New York Times became convinced New Yorkers were too hot under the collar to enjoy Indian summer. In a Dec. 27, 2006, story, he tried to light a fire under his readers: “People worried that the cause of such a mild December was global warming, and yesterday the joys of wearing short sleeves were tempered with the anxiety of environmental disaster.”

     The network news shows overheated the issue even further.

      “Today Show” newcomer Meredith Vieira showed her cool journalistic demeanor in a January 8 comment about the beautiful weather. “So I’m running in the park on Saturday in shorts, thinking this is great but are we all gonna die?” she asked. If it’s that or watching the “Today Show,” you’d have a tough choice.

     “NBC Nightly News” tried to throw some cold water on all the hysteria by bringing in a weather expert on January 5. Anchor Brian Williams asked for the definitive answer on the recent warming trend: “So once and for all, what is it?”

     Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen, from the government’s own National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, answered like a crack of thunder. “It is not global warming, Brian. It is El Nino, El Nino, El Nino.” Feltgen’s fist pounded into his palm with each exclamation.

     You remember El Nino. (El Nino must be Spanish for “really wonderful winter weather, so shut the heck up and stop complaining.”) It happens every few years and messes up the jet stream.

     By blaming El Nino, Feltgen gave Williams exactly what he wanted – a definitive answer.

     Except in TV land, where “once and for all” means 72 hours.

     Three days later, Williams backtracked and gave us “the rest of the story.” He brought in Chief Science Correspondent Robert Bazell to argue that the mild weather in the East was related to global warming. He then blamed the amazing snow in Denver on climate change. “Indeed, even the heavy snow in the Rockies this year might be partly caused by global warming,” he explained somehow without laughing.

     The Denver snow was so bad that the Post reported “crews fired artillery shells to trigger controlled avalanches.” Sure sounds like global warming to me.

     For the media, weather has become universally bad. Last year, CBS led up to winter with terrifying warnings of skyrocketing heating costs that could devastate poor and middle class alike. This year’s unseasonably warm temperatures should mean good news for those same fuel buyers – but the coverage has lacked that context.

      “CBS Evening News” anchor Bob Schieffer predicted “natural gas bills in some parts of the country could be as much as 71 percent higher than last winter,” back on Sept. 7, 2005. Schieffer horribly misstated the number and eventually lowered his prediction to 41 percent. Reality dropped it even further.

     Still, the media followed that theme throughout the cold months. On the December 10 broadcast of CNN’S “In the Money,” Christine Romans whined “for the elderly in particular, it's going to be heat or eat.” Network newsies also bashed oil companies every chance they got, treating them like they were personally throwing the poor out into the cold.

     Where are those stories now? Gas prices are actually lower than they were a year ago. Oil has dropped more than $20 from its 2006 high. Thanks to the warm weather, far fewer people are struggling to heat their homes.

     Instead network news shows have complained about the problems of warm weather for ski resorts and clothing manufacturers. ABC’s Barbara Pinto spent a minute and 40 seconds of one broadcast bemoaning closed ski resorts and a drop in demand for winter coats before giving six seconds to the “silver lining” of “less demand for heating oil.”

     There’s an old expression that says, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change.” Too bad that doesn’t apply to the media as well.

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.