Sunday, January 23rd, 2000
The next time Atlanta gets some freezing rain and ice, I wish the city’s news directors would treat it as a four-way stop.
Around 3 am early Sunday morning, a series of cracking sounds led me downstairs to turn the TV—and my web browser—on, just to see how bad things were outside. What I could see through the haze on our upstairs windows was the beginnings of ice forming on the utility wires, and some slick-looking streets. Would my trusty television clue me in? Well, WSB offered me Xena and Baywatch Hawaii, WXIA had a Saturday Night Live rerun from 1978 (I guess that was a particularly cold and nasty winter), and FOX 5 had an X-Files repeat—ah!—with a weather crawl that basically said "Ice Storm Warning, be careful." CBS 46 had some informercial that seemed exceedingly bright—things were either screwed up at the tape machine or at their transmitter. WXIA’s signal dropped and came back up a couple of times. Great.
As morning light came, television coverage of the "crisis" was as up to speed as it would get. Bottom line: the two stations who normally do pointless Sunday morning news (that would be WSB and WXIA) had production crews in place and went and stayed live with it throughout the morning. The two public stations were off the air; WUPA 69 chose to broadcast color bars all morning.
Channels 11 and 2 called in a few extra reporters and outposted them to do the usual: talk to people who’ve had car accidents and dropped tree limbs on their houses. Every five minutes, weatherpersons Monica Woods (WXIA) and David Chandley (WSB) showed us the big picture (the one I was able to see at 3 am on the web)—Atlanta was right at the freezing point, things north of town were icy, things south of town weren’t, and in between, your mileage may vary. Chandley’s tragic flaw: maps emblazoned with huge words in bright pink and green—his favorite colors? Woods, meanwhile, was still trying to figure how to pronounce the names of some small Georgia towns.
FOX 5—which stuck with regular programming until 11 am, eventually brought us a sweatered Ken Cook with intermittent updates. After 11, Cook anchored their coverage for a while from the weather map—mostly a collection of phone interviews with emergency officials and a couple of live shots from third-string reporters who asked homeowners "how are you going to get that tree off your house?" Gee, I don’t know, maybe lift it with my superhuman strength?
WSB’s weekend traffic reporter Mark Arum (who referred to anchor Warren Savage as "Mr. Savage"—what southern courtliness!) delivered a completely confusing map that showed little circling arrows going around all the freeway signs (signifying baffled signs?) WXIA’s traffic reporter Frank Pritchard—on the phone—provided some real information about tree blockages—and concentrated on roads northeast of town,.
WSB is the only station who shamelessly displayed a "StormWatch 2000" logo throughout their coverage—the other stations were either unprepared or have wised up that viewers just don’t care about blatant branding of a crisis. WXIA—okay, 11 Alive—took a slightly different approach, using the storm as a chance to give shamelessly promote their people. We were treated to a pointless live shot with Al Deal in DeKalb County repeating nearly-word-for-word what in-studio anchor Keith Whitney had just said ("Overpasses may be slicker ") and then Bill Liss, reporting via cell phone from what probably was his bed, told us if we need more information on airline delays, call the main Delta Air Lines number. Gee, thanks, Bill, my phone book isn’t at my bedside.. These egomaniacs grabbed face time away from actual reporters like Denis O’Hayer—consistently one of the city’s best reporters, who did a good job telling us what everyone else wasn’t saying.
By 11:30 am, dressed-for-a-dinner-party Paul Ossmann had taken over the anchor chores at WXIA, pointlessly taking phone calls from uninformed viewers. Tana Brackin (and later, Cory Thompson) showed up at the FOX 5 anchor desk, and the cameras at CBS Atlanta were finally warmed up, bringing us prime anchor Calvin Hughes paired with Helen Neill. They joined the branding parade late: welcome to "Ice Storm 2000." Unfortunately for them, the rain at this point had pretty much stopped.
Meanwhile, WSB’s live coverage seemed to more completely reflect the metro as a whole. Deidra Dukes showed us a downed tree embedded in an apartment building in Southeast Atlanta. Denise Dunbar brought us the story of a house trailer that burned to the ground overnight in a poorer neighborhood in northwest Atlanta, and up in Cartecay (in Gilmer County) with a fogged-over lens, Richard Elliott reported on folks who had some much more serious weather to deal with.
?And I still shake my head when I heard WXIA repeatedly suggest that, in a situation that has hundreds of thousands of homes without power, that viewers check their website for school and church closings and other details. Makes me want to yank the power lines to their newsroom: how’s your website now, guys?