Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s main mayhem reporter, was downright panting somewhere near Portsmouth.
An earthquake had just struck Virginia and we were being told it could be felt as far away as Saturn.
There were at least four score of CNN reporters on the story. And that didn’t count the producer who happened to be visiting relatives in Virginia and countless citizen reporters like the guy who was walking his dog in Central Park.
My man Wolf wasn’t prepared at first, so he was being interviewed by another CNN reporter. The interviewer being interviewed is an old trick. I’ve used it myself.
As the reports flowed in it was — ah — beginning to feel a little like a nonstory. But in the greatest tradition of the media, they carried on.
“So where were you when it struck?” Wolf asks some random guy.
“Well, I was a few blocks over that way.”
“Did you feel it?”
“Well I was getting lunch and pushing some mustard on my dog and I had thought someone was goofin’ with me and hitting my elbow so the mustard would go all over the place. But I looked around and no one was there.”
“How’d it feel?”
“A little scary.”
“Thanks. OK. … You. So where were you when it struck?”
I kid … a bit. But there really is an interesting dynamic at play when the media — us included — get involved in a story like this.
Essentially — and yes, this can be debated — we made a huge deal out of a little deal.
At our news meeting on this fateful day, I made note of my skepticism of this story but we still put it on the front page.
So we’re kind of guilty too.
But it ended up on our front page because although it wasn’t the second coming (à la CNN and many other TV stations) it had some interesting elements.
As noted, we print guys try to work a story like this as well.
Check this lead from one of our wire services:
“The most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years shook buildings and rattled nerves from South Carolina to Maine on Tuesday.”
But then — to the reporter’s credit — the important stuff showed up in the next sentence.
“There were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries.”
Disasters are often measured by deaths and property damage. And this one just wasn’t stacking up.
Look, we have a hurricane heading for our East Coast right now. Could be serious. And we know there are earthquakes that are serious. Very serious.
But the media have an obligation to sort the seriousness to help give viewers and readers a clear picture.
When I was talking to a friend he noted the seriousness of this quake by saying a 4-inch crack showed up in one of those D.C. monuments.
I kind of smiled.
“Quick, tell Wolf to turn the corporate jet around. That exclusive interview with Gadhafi is off. We’ve found a crack!!!”
Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.