This is a tale about how a nothing story became a something story.
As Hurricane Dorian churned in the Atlantic, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet:
“In addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!”
That was on Sept. 1. But given the events that followed, it feels like ancient history.
The president’s tweet was based partly on old information as well as speculation that never made it into official National Weather Service forecasts. By Sept. 1, Alabama was not under threat from Dorian.
So, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office sought to set the record straight.
The office tweeted, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
This should have been the end of it. Of course, it wasn’t.
President Trump does not like to admit when he’s wrong, and the cable news channels can’t let go of any Trump miscue, no matter how trivial, which has the perverse result of exhausting the audience for when real scandals come along.
The president then made sure his spat with the Birmingham NWS office had a TV-friendly visual when he showed up with a hurricane projection map that included a hand-drawn bubble taking in Alabama.
So the back-and-forth continued. On Sept. 6, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an unsigned statement criticizing the Birmingham weather office:
“The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Suddenly this trivial affair was becoming serious. Meteorologists nationwide didn’t take kindly to some of their own being thrown under the bus for what seemed obvious political reasons.
“The tweet from NWS Birmingham was spot on and accurate,” tweeted James Spann of Birmingham TV station ABC 33/40. “If they are coming after them, they might as well come after me. How in the world has it come to this?”
And Spann was hardly alone.
“The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety, the same goal as all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Monday to a National Weather Association conference in Huntsville.
Then came the most disturbing revelation.
The New York Times reported that the anonymous NOAA memo came only after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — point man for the president’s trade war — threatened to fire top NOAA officials unless they backed up Trump’s mistaken tweet.
A Commerce Department spokesperson has denied the Times’ account, but that’s frankly what we would expect. And who are we to trust, the Times or people who would lie about the weather?
The thought the head of the Commerce Department would threaten people’s jobs unless they give him the results he wants is troubling. Commerce is not over just NOAA, it’s responsible for collecting the nation’s economic data. What if a commerce secretary were to threaten the jobs of officials who bring him bad economic news?
Trump’s original tweet was nothing much to get upset about, but no one could let it go. It was the scab everyone picked at, and now it’s infected. Now we have a real scandal.