As I sat reading by candlelight during Irene's visit to New York, I reflected on the role TV plays in an electrically powered world.
While Irene wasn't the disaster we feared she might be -- at least in the city -- last month's hurricane did manage to down trees, produce flooding, and knock out power for nearly a week for some of us in the NY metro area. Of course, we had taken our preparation seriously. Just like in the good old days, we stockpiled water and batteries and cranked the transistor radio. But we also charged up the cellphone and iPad.
After all, disasters are not what they used to be.
Thirty years ago, when the power went out, you expected to feel isolated and adrift. If you were lucky, you went over to a friend's house where a TV might be working so you could watch Walter Cronkite.
Twenty years ago, during the first Gulf War, I was working in the first Bush Administration and CNN was our primary source of "real-time" news from the front lines. While we did supplement TV reports with intelligence briefings, it was Peter Arnett, standing on the rooftops, who told us what was really happening.
Ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, wherever you were at the time, chances are you turned on the TV. You might have used instant messaging, as I did, to check on your co-workers, share news of your whereabouts, and connect with friends and family, but most people spent that morning and the dark days after glued to the TV screen.
Today, more than ever, we all feel a deep-seated need to stay connected. We deploy every weapon in our media arsenal to keep connected: We check Twitter and Facebook for early eyewitness accounts of breaking-news events like last month's unusual West Coast-esque building-rumbling earthquake in the city. We use BlackBerry Messenger or Skype to stay in touch with friends and colleagues in a crisis (especially when the cellular infrastructure is overwhelmed). We read newspapers and magazines for deep-dive reporting, blogs and social media sites when we need to go even deeper, and magazines for the post-mortem.
And now, if you're lucky (and have the right cable operator), you can stream live TV onto your iPad or tablet for the authoritative reports -- as I did in the dark during Hurricane Irene.
What struck me about our need for news during the double whammy two weeks ago -- the earthquake and Irene -- was the enduring centrality of television on the media continuum.
Even in our Internet-powered world, new media is no longer a threat to old media -- it's a complement and an enabler. At the end of the day, you can find yourself sitting in the dark in the middle of a hurricane without any power, and you can still turn on your iPad to find good old CNN and the Weather Channel.
The definition of television itself is certainly changing. But as we take a moment to reflect during these days following the 10th anniversary of 9/11, let's remember to thank all those who serve our medium for continuing to provide a compass that lights the way.