Weather Channel's Bettes image brings home tornado
NEW YORK -- The Weather Channel's Mike Bettes arrived in storm-ravaged Joplin, Mo., right after a tornado had ripped through its soul. He looked around, spoke to the camera and began to cry.
His emotional outbreak during coverage of Joplin became one of the defining television images of the tragedy. Yet the extent to which Bettes' reaction was subsequently aired on The Weather Channel and elsewhere creates questions about whether genuine emotion is diluted by repetition.
In the day or two afterward, the clip ran repeatedly -- on the "Today" show, on "Nightly News" and cable news networks. The Weather Channel ran it as well and it soon became confusing what was happening live and what wasn't. The clip also spread widely online.
At some point dramatic reports that are widely repeated can become like video wallpaper, seen so many times that the power is siphoned away.
It's an issue that has long interested David Westin, former ABC News president. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he ordered that ABC News no longer show video images of the airplanes striking the World Trade Center or the towers collapsing. He was concerned about the psychological impact of repeating the horror, particularly on younger children.
Bettes, a meteorologist who has been with The Weather Channel for more than seven years, is in the midst of a tornado tracking project and equipped with a special NBC News van used in war zones. The van makes capable live video transmissions from a moving vehicle.
He was chasing the storm cell that so far killed 132 people in Joplin on May 22, a cell that passed right over them before the tornado formed.
When Bettes and his crew arrived in Joplin, they saw light damage at first. But they knew something might be up when a frantic man darted into the street in front of them, slipped and fell, then ran off again just as quickly. They soon reached a surreal moonscape of more horrific damage. Bettes hopped out and began a live report.
"All I can say is it looks very much like what we saw last month, excuse me, in Tuscaloosa," Bettes said. He began to cry, and walked away from the camera. He took some deep breaths and struggled to regain his composure.
"It's tough," he said. "No question about that."