'A friendly reminder; posting deterministic model output with tropical cyclone positions 10 days out to get shares and likes (or to scare people) isn't cool. It serves no good purpose. A drunk donkey could pull this data and post it.'
— Meteorologist James Spann, in a Sept. 5 tweet
YOU WOULD think that an oncoming hurricane would be a good reason for folks to take a break from destroying each other on social media
But you would think wrong.
Thankfully, Hurricane Florence spared the Savannah area almost entirely, with barely a drizzle and a breeze being felt here, even as North Carolina suffered catastrophic and lethal flooding.
Not everyone down this way went completely unscathed however.
Before it became clear that Florence would stay well to the north, there was a great deal of speculation on social media as to where it might go.
Fueling the speculation was the new-ish phenomenon of “spaghetti models,” i.e. different computer hurricane tracking models, and their easy access by John Q. Public.
I don’t know how much familiarity you have with spaghetti models, but their nickname is apt: They look like someone threw a bunch of noodles at the computer screen.
And they often have about as much rhyme or reason.
Apparently, people love to argue about them, and about which ones are right.
To these amateur hurricane forecasters, the phrase “Euro model” conjures up not a sleek and attractive woman or man wearing the latest styles, but a particular spaghetti model that, last week at least, showed Florence turning south and basically leveling Savannah.
In the growing ranks of online amateur weather experts, the Euro model is spoken of in hushed tones, considered sacrosanct and never wrong.
Except when it is wrong.
Oddly enough, if you want to piss people off, tell them a hurricane is probably not going to hit them.
That seems to have been the “crime” of WTOC meteorologist Jamie Ertle, who diligently did her job of reporting responsibly on Hurricane Florence to her local viewing audience.
In numerous broadcasts, Ertle capably and professionally relayed the latest Florence updates to the Coastal Empire, as did many other fine local broadcast journalists, including her colleagues at WTOC.
I am proud to call all these local broadcasters my colleagues in the local journalism industry.
In one particular Facebook Live broadcast, however, Ertle quoted Spann’s tweet warning of using meteorological data without context or expertise — specifically the sainted “Euro model” which showed Florence headed here, but which the National Hurricane Center still had reason to believe wasn’t going to prove accurate.
(Time proved the National Hurricane Center, and Ertle, correct.)
For whatever reason, Ertle’s off-the-cuff comment — very tame by any media standard, and incredibly tame by social media standards — provoked the apparently easily-provoked ire of a bunch of fanboys and fangirls of one particular amateur site on Facebook, “Mike’s Weather Page.”
Full disclosure: I have followed Mike’s Weather Page for a couple of years, and have no particular problems with either Mike, nor his Weather!
But some of Mike’s more hardcore fans seem to regard him with almost religious zeal, whether he is right or wrong.
And that zealotry combined with a Facebook account equals nothing good in this world.
The online barrage was immediate and heavy. Fans of Mike’s page from all over the east coast — few of them actually from the WTOC viewing area — bombarded Ertle’s Facebook page with angry, sarcastic, and often grossly sexist comments, including the “c” word and the “b” word.
“Mean” and “unprofessional” were the mildest insults hurled her way, by the thousands.
In the meantime, Mike — using what you’d have to admit is good business sense —capitalized on the controversy by selling a ton of “Drunk Donkey” T-shirts.
Some trolls visited pretty much every Facebook post Ertle had ever made on her WTOC page, spamming them with negative comments about that one comment she made on that one Facebook Live broadcast.
In today’s world, we often see people making mistakes on social media and paying a price vastly out of proportion with the actual transgression.
I myself have been on the receiving end of a social media firestorm — one with far greater justification than a simple comment about the weather —for which I apologized and learned many important lessons from.
However, this isn’t even one of those cases.
Ertle was vindicated in her reporting — her professional cautions to stick with the National Hurricane Center’s vast expertise turned out to be totally correct.
Ertle issued a sincere apology for quoting the tweet, which in my opinion —and to be clear, I’m speaking just for myself —wasn’t even warranted.
(There has been no corresponding apology to her, from anyone, for the way she was treated.)
People frequently say that what they want out of their media is bold, controversial, edgy attitude and opinions.
And here we have a journalist who barely even had an opinion —and the one she had was basically correct — and she had literally thousands of people not even in her viewing area demand that she be fired for it!
What’s even more unbelievable is this:
As of this writing, Ertle is no longer active with WTOC. Her last Facebook post was Sept. 12. And yes, it’s spammed by fans of Mike’s Weather Page.
I contacted WTOC for comment, since I’ve been besieged by curious people concerned about the situation and wanting to know more.
Station manager Larry Silbermann simply tells me, “Since this is a personnel matter, out of respect for all concerned, I cannot comment nor confirm anything regarding Jamie Ertle’s status.”
I do respect any media outlet’s right to make their own personnel decisions, as I would expect them to respect ours at Connect Savannah.
And I want to be clear again that I’m speaking purely for myself, from my vantage point as a fellow media professional.
If it were me, I would hope my media organization would have my back in such an instance — as indeed mine has before.
This is my small effort to say that I have a fellow journalist’s back.
Given the extreme tribulation being suffered now in North Carolina, all this may seem quite trivial. And in that sense, it is.
After all, it’s just another tempest in a teapot social media controversy, the likes of which most of us have already become numb to seeing.
But then again, real lives have been impacted by this controversy which really shouldn’t qualify as a controversy at all.
One thing I’ve been happy about is seeing all the comments in her support posted around town, and on WTOC pages.
At times like these, comments such as those can go a long way.