National Weather Service – and the Media – What Do They Have In Common

Why do we need the National Weather Service? We have the Weather Channel…

Why do I need my local paper? I’ve got the Huffington Post…

That story is detailed and boring – people won’t pay attention… the kitten is cuter……

That first question was asked by a Senator not long after the Weather Channel came on air and is, in my mind, a really good snapshot of the problems that are plaguing our country. Do people really understand what the National Weather Service does, why it is important and why it can’t just be replaced by for-profit corporations. I lived in the weather community for over 20 years and so I understand the underpinnings of the system and the private/public partnership that already flourishes.

The NWS and that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been a ripe target because weather and climate are closely tied together and the science of climate change is something that the scientists within the agency, as with the broader research community, acknowledge as a real and present danger for the country and the world. How do you avoid having to make hard decisions to prevent or mitigate a world changing natural disaster? One way is to discredit and dismantle the agency that is most directly involved in doing and understanding the science. The Republicans have been trying to do that since I started my career in 1991.

Even without that, understanding and predicting the weather and the climate (both are critical even without the dangers of accelerated, anthropogenic climate change) is an expensive endeavor. I worked for the University Corporation for Atmosphere Research (UCAR), which managed the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). It was founded because no one university, no one organization could afford to build the computer facilities and do the research needed for the complex models that are the underpinnings of the improvements we continue to see in forecasts. It takes a countries, no actually, a world’s resources to build and launch the weather satellites that cover this world.

Even if you ignore that no company can muster the resources to launch those satellites AND buy those super computers we have to ask the question would a company be willing to take on the liability of making hurricane forecasts, tornado forecasts or even day to day weather forecasts. How much would they have to ask for those forecasts? How much could they charge? What would happen to people who weren’t willing or able to pay? what happens if there are two companies, giving conflicting forecasts? These are questions that I hear from friends in the weather community. Right now, the National Weather Service is the linchpin to our entire weather infrastructure. They provide the warnings. The private sector takes responsibility for more customized forecasts – for energy companies, for retailers, you name it they do it. It makes for a very successful partnership that is a model for the world and it leaves rooms for a lot of that good capitalist business but it all falls apart if we take away the National Weather Service and as they have for decades Republicans are trying to do just that.

So what does this have to do with newspapers and the basic reporting that is the bulwark of the “4th estate”. If we aren’t willing to pay for (or in some other way fund) our nation’s news we are lost. We need independent news organizations who are out doing the reporting, looking into the stories that are important and not just the ones that get the “clicks”. News compliers do not exist if we don’t have someone investigating and writing the news. As important, or perhaps more so, is that if the stories that are covered are driven by “clicks” you get the uneven coverage we’ve seen over the last 15 months, the last 15 years, and more. The media has fallen to false equivalencies and an (imagined) call for “even-handedness” that has become a refusal to call a lie a lie.

I don’t know if it began with (or got worse with) climate change but it feels like that denial and the Republicans staunch refusal to believe the science backed up in full by Fox news has led to a downward spiral into a refusal to simply state fact or call a lie a lie. It was probably made worse by the drumbeat to the Iraq war where calling into question the falsities (lies) being proclaimed by the Bush administration was to be just short of being un-American.  Remember the call for Freedom Fries instead of French Fries – because France opposed the call to war. That led into the administration of the first black President where the Republicans were determined to make him a one-term president and nothing he did could be correct and so they just began to lie. Up was down, good was bad. The continued denial of climate change, which was the denial of science, and somehow the media just played along, seemingly afraid to call out the lies. There are exceptions, but not as many as there should be and that just leads to more confusion among the American public.

In these, and many other cases we have to be willing to invest. Whether it is in paying for a media that is responsible to more than “clicks” or a weather infrastructure that must be funded by the public sector. It’s a basic service that is incredibly important. The Weather Channel is great, I’m a weather junkie, but I know that it doesn’t exist without the National Weather Service, no matter what snowball tossing Senators may think.

Facts, truth, science, public investment – these are hallmarks of our country – we can’t abandon them now.



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