Sharpiegate funny, yet no laughing matter

Sharpiegate gave many of us a good laugh. The circumstances involving President Donald Trump's mistaken claim that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama could have been written for a Saturday Night Live skit.

The problem is, it was real.

The nation again witnessed a president who is incapable of admitting a mistake, even a slipup that could have been easily explained and would have been quickly excused by the public. Instead, the nation watched the silliness of the Sharpie line fraudulently extending the projected track for the hurricane into Alabama. The public learned of administration officials threatening scientists to back up the president.

As satire it would be a gut buster. As reality it raises serious concerns.

Most fundamentally, people need to trust that the forecast they are getting from the National Weather Service is accurate. Yet now the thought has been injected that someone may just be playing politics. Maybe a storm is being overhyped to raise fears of climate change or downplayed to reduce alarm? Perhaps a governor just needs a good emergency to raise her profile before an election?

Most troubling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in at least one statement, backed the president's forecast against that of its own forecasters, defending Trump's tweet about a threat to Alabama and rebuking forecasters in Birmingham who had challenged the false report. According to The New York Times, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire people if they did not stay in line.

On some matters, the public must trust the government will provide straightforward facts, not spun for the benefit of a party or politician. Otherwise things break down. Matters such as labor statistics, economic data, crime reporting and, yes, weather warnings. It’s not funny to see that trust undermined. And it’s not funny that an administration is willing to twist arms to save face.

That is why, though some might try to dismiss this as a small, silly matter, it must be investigated. The Office of Inspector General of the Commerce Department has opened a probe and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is investigating. How exactly did this all play out?

There were some examples of courage. NOAA acting chief scientist Craig McLean and National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini refused to play along, backing the forecasters who did their jobs, not the egotist in the White House.

Who knows? The next Sharpie line could extend into Connecticut or away from it. Then we’d all be wondering should we stay, or should we go? That kind of uncertainty is never good when lives are at stake.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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