Column the blizzard of 2015 — white noise columns gas south


In one live shot during The Blizzard of 2015, a Boston TV reporter measures what is clearly a plow pile at the edge of a parking lot. Bundled to the chin, he issues his gawking narration — it’s deep, and this is only the beginning — while fumbling to re-coil his tape measure. In the next scene, dubbed “Breakfast of Champions,” the reporter introduces viewers to the contents of his grocery bag: Twizzlers, Snickers, Devil Dogs, a partially eaten Entenmann’s danish, and other assorted convenience store treats, followed, finally, by a ripe, red apple. This he tosses and catches disparagingly in a gloved hand, remarking that it is unlikely to get much love back in the newsroom. The message, presumably, is that the news, having stayed up all night to bring YOU the very latest in this historic dumping of snow, is now hunkered down in some survival-type situation. They are dug in, eating HoHos, because the snow that is whipping and blowing and piling up is intensely newsworthy.

Twelve hours earlier, as The Blizzard is beginning to show its white teeth, the governor is interviewed live at the MEMA bunker. A reporter asks him if this storm, which the National Weather Service is calling “historic” and “dangerous” — is a sign of climate change. The question implies one of two possible maxims held by the reporter: Either he has failed to recognize that blizzards in New England go back as far as meteorological history itself, a fact that would negate the hypothesis that blizzards in January indicate climate change; or, more likely, the reporter is convinced the impending storm will stand out against history as something truly unique, a sure sign of climate change, if not the apocalypse.

The news filling our minds and our home with a drifting swirl of grim expectations, our family of four laid out sleeping bags that night in the living room. The reasoning was that if a tree were to crash through the roof, we would be safest on the bottom floor. More to the point, though, this was a fun way to kick off a couple of snow days with the kids. The TV blared late into the night, broad, luminous, a wall of urgency at our feet. Before we tuned out, the news told us to charge all of our wireless devices so we could remain tethered to the mother-source of latest information in a power outage. We obeyed.

The next morning, we awoke to the happy realization that no destruction had been visited upon our home. Nor had we lost power. The Blizzard swirled outside, but somehow the reality through the windows seemed considerably less singular than the thing that had been foretold. Groggy in our sleeping bags, we flicked on the TV to discover the latest state of the apocalypse. Busy plow guys. Bundled reporters. School cancellations. Entenmann’s.

We spent the snow day cozied up in the house. The news stayed with us, the volume intermittently on and off. The coverage was constant. Meteorologists reveled in the digital glow of radar and metrics. Roadside cameras showed us that it was indeed hard to see through the snow. Families shared their intimate snow day pictures. There was a slow-motion video of a little, white dog bounding through the drifts. His floppy ears made him look like the dragon in The Never Ending Story.

It began to occur to me that this historic event — foretold by the news and still being treated as such by the news, was nothing more than a winter storm. This is New England. Sometimes it snows. Sometimes it snows a lot. The reality was that two storms were occurring simultaneously. The first was real and observable. We could see it, feel it, and shovel it. The second was a television event made of words and pictures. The two resembled each other only slightly.

In Don DeLillo’s famous novel, a community is confronted with a toxic cloud. As a scrambled evacuation gets underway, that which is objectively observable is juxtaposed with that which is spoken aloud. The need for truth pervades every conversation as protagonist Jack Gladney and his family ponder what the cloud in the sky means for them. An inherent distrust of information pervades. The radio describes the disaster as a derailment, when it is clear by looking that the tank car from which the toxic gas emits has been punctured, not derailed. Through a reckless process of naming and renaming, the nature of the cloud takes on an ever-shifting significance. What the radio initially describes quaintly as a “feathery plume” appears to Heinrich, the protagonist’s 14-year-old son, more like a “shapeless, growing thing. A dark black breathing thing of smoke.” Later the radio ramps up its description to “A black billowing cloud.” The words “airborne toxic event” are first breathed by Heinrich, who, as the chief objective observer, monitors the radio waves as closely as he does the cloud itself. “He spoke these words in a clipped and foreboding manner, syllable by syllable, as if he sensed the threat in state-created terminology,” the narrator says.

As the radio’s descriptions of the cloud grow increasingly ominous, so too does the list of symptoms, which the broadcasters revise throughout the scene. The annoyance of sweaty palms is corrected to read “nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath.” That prognosis is corrected in favor of heart palpitations and déjà vu. Ultimately, the broadcast news settles on “Convulsions, coma, miscarriage” — these words delivered by a “well-informed and sprightly voice.” Jack’s two young daughters seem to experience all but the final set of symptoms. Oddly enough, though, they are always one symptom behind the latest broadcast. Jack suspects that their observable, physical symptoms are wrought by the power of suggestion, and he glibly wonders if suggestion is powerful enough to cause a 9-year-old to have a miscarriage.

Words, especially words uttered in urgent cadences and broadcast into every living room across the state, have the dangerous capacity to make us believe that what we experience with our senses and perceive with our minds is somehow less real than the “truth” we see on TV. During The Blizzard of 2015, the news infused the airwaves with the constant assertion that we were experiencing something exceptional. It was historic. It was dangerous. We could die. Yet when I took stock of my own situation and the situations of those around me, the actual, physical impacts were markedly different from the “reality” made for TV:

To be fair, I realize others experienced far more significant impacts. According to facts published after the storm, 34,000 people lost power. Five coastal homes in Marshfield were destroyed by waves. A man died shoveling. A woman in Salem froze to death. Flights out of Logan were canceled. Thousands of parents had to scramble childcare due to school cancellations. In terms of snowfall, the storm was Boston’s sixth-biggest on record. Certainly The Blizzard was newsworthy.

But there’s a difference between news and entertainment, and what we get on TV is almost always the latter. Television is a medium that feeds on feeding itself. It creates the story to pull in viewers; it convinces them that what they are seeing is real and important; and in an endless loop, it gorges.

At the height of the storm, while some spectators without power watched on wireless devices and five families lost their homes, the information broadcast into our cozy abodes was like a bag of convenience store treats: Sweet, fluffy, and ultimately lacking in any real value.