It's probably naive -- OK, unbelievably naive -- but perhaps Hurricane Sandy, whose destructive potential was greatly underestimated in the early going, will give us a chance to retire a journalistic custom that's gone from being a cliche to merely tiresome and now, when we've seen all that Sandy has wrought, insensitive.
This is the tradition of sending the TV weatherperson out to stagger about a beach informing us that the wind is really strong and the waves are really high. The photographer is shooting from the shelter of a seaside motel. The anchor back at the station urges the weatherperson to "be careful out there and stay dry." If you wanted her to stay dry, why did you send her -- and they're increasingly women -- there in the first place? You never hear any such wishes for the cameraperson.
Beaches by nature tend to be featureless expanses of sand, and it must be a real problem for the crews to find some feature to give the shot texture and perspective. The result is that you get some meaningless points of reference. "In Hurricane Irene, the waves came all the way up to here," our correspondent might tell us, pointing at some random post in the sand, "and Sandy is already past it and almost up to there," pointing at another random post.
In Rehoboth Beach, Del., there was a pile of sand, grandly referred to as a "dune," with some scrubby grass and a fence designed to catch and hold sand. It was the only feature for hundreds of yards, apparently. We were told it was rapidly eroding and, indeed, it eventually disappeared, but I think it was trampled flat by TV crews fighting over it for an establishing shot.
Short of a giant squid -- think "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" -- coming out of the surf and making off with the weatherperson, it's hard to make waves interesting. There's a reason recordings of breaking waves are used as sleep aids. And if there are other people around, they rarely have anything to say. Generally, "Oh, we just came out to see what was going on." Maybe one day, the couple, and they always seem to be couples, will say, "We were just curious about that green tentacle wrapping itself around your leg." But we daydream.
The TV tradition of first-person storm coverage can probably be dated to Dan Rather, who achieved fame and a network job by lashing himself to a traffic pole or some such to cover Hurricane Carla in Houston in 1961.
Newspapers have a similar and even more pointless tradition. Whenever a hurricane threatened Ocean City, Md., we had a reporter who would plead and beg to cover it. The assignment editor, based on long experience, would say no but would eventually relent, generally when the reporter offered to pay his own way.
We would get a predictable story that could just as easily have been written in the office: rain falling, wind rising, waves crashing, storefronts boarded up, supermarkets emptied out, long lines of cars headed inland and police warning hard-core types that they stayed at their own risk.
Then, in those days when we were tied to land lines, the power and phone service would go out and we wouldn't hear from our reporter until the storm was no longer a story.
The windblown reporter standing on the beach has become a cliche, and as an old city editor of mine used to say, "I'm tired of old cliches. Go find some new cliches."
Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.