A local Illinois weatherman criticized his own news station's "Code Red" weather alerts, saying the alert "doesn't recognize that not all storms are created equal" and that the alerts are forced upon him by a "corporate initiative."
All while live on air.
"We want you to know it's not us," Joe Crain, a meteorologist for WICS in Springfield, Illinois, said in a June 5 on-air monologue that has gone viral. "This is a corporate initiative, the 'Code Red' alert, and behind the scenes many of us have tried to dissuade it for the last few months, to try something else that's less controversial to the viewers."
Crain hasn't appeared on air since, and his job may now be on the line. In addition, several companies have stopped advertising with the station in solidarity with Crain and his commentary against the corporate decision-makers.
Crain has worked at WICS, which is a CNN affiliate, since 2004. His profile page on WICS' website was removed after his commentary was broadcast.
Crain declined to comment to CNN on his employment status. WICS did not respond a request for comment, and its owner, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Sinclair public relations officer Ronn Torossian wrote that "we're glad they [issued a code red]. That afternoon there was significant storm damage in the area including trees falling on homes, downed power lines, and hail storms. Thankfully, residents were adequately warned to prepare."
According to the Post, Sinclair also said that the seemingly constant red alert days were the product of an active weather pattern and that the decision to issue a code red alert is made by local meteorologists,
Sinclair is the largest owner of local TV stations in the US, and the company's role and media influence has come under heightened scrutiny in the past couple years.
Sinclair's role is particularly important because, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 37% of Americans say they often watch local television news. That's higher than those who get news from cable news, network TV news, newspapers, radio, social media and news websites, the Pew study found.
Weather is the most important topic of local news viewers by a wide margin. A Pew study earlier this year found that 70 percent of US adults said weather was an important local news topic for daily life, well ahead of crime, the next highest-rated topic, at 44 percent.
The problem with Code Red
In his criticism, Crain explained that the "Code Red" was an overly simple phrase for a more complicated issue.
"It's not the perfect solution because, of course, with 'Code Red,' it's all inclusive. It doesn't recognize that not all storms are created equal," he said.
The National Weather Service, he noted, puts out a 1-5 scale on severe weather that shows how frequent the storms are and their intensity.
"On the other hand, Code Red was created by, likely, a journalism school graduate," he said. "That being said, I'm a journalism school graduate."
He acknowledged criticisms of the alert from viewers in the form of "thousands" of comments on social media, in letters to the editor and in calls to local radio shows.
For example, just days before his monologue, a viewer wrote a scathing letter published in The State Journal-Register, the daily newspaper in Springfield, saying he was "sick to death" of the alerts.
"It would appear that any cloud in the sky will warrant a 'Code Red.' Indeed, we have three or four for this week alone!" wrote Victor Edwards of Springfield. "This is something like the boy who cried wolf, or Chicken Little, and what it does is make the viewers skeptical of anything the weather people say when not a single one eventuates."
In his commentary, Crain said he understood the criticism of the name "Code Red" and the seriousness that implies.
"Certainly, when you hear Code Red, you think, as they say, the feces is about to hit the fan," he said. "So with that being said, we understand your concerns and we want you to know that we take them very seriously, as far as myself goes. I don't take myself very seriously, but I do take my job seriously and my responsibility to the public."
Finally, he said that the issue was a "corporate initiative," and he encouraged viewers to continue sending in their feedback.
"So, keep in mind, despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation, it's still licensed under the authority by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity, so you still have a voice. Keep those cards and letters coming," he said.
Furthermore, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said that the use of "Code Red" is particularly confusing because the phrase has a specific meaning for the EPA's Air Quality Index, a measure of how clean or polluted the air is.
'Joe, we support you'
Crain has been met with an outpouring of support, and several companies have suspended their advertising with WICS amid the controversy.
Sutton's, a local home improvement business that sponsored the 7-Day weather forecast on WICS, said it was pulling its advertising and will not be sponsoring the forecast for the foreseeable future.
"Joe, we support you," Sutton's marketing director Max Bumgardner wrote on Facebook. "We recognize the fact that you were responding to your viewer's concerns. We recognize how you have handled things with total class over the years. We recognize how carefully you have handled our sponsorship of the seven-day forecast on the air."
Bumgardner wrote that he would offer Crain a sales position if he ends up losing his WICS job.
"It is our hope that your services are retained at WICS-TV and that cooler heads prevail. Thank you for what you offer to our community. Know you are loved and respected by many," he wrote.
Henson Robinson Company, a home and commercial contractor which advertised with WICS, said on Facebook it "has asked WICS to suspend all advertising until facts can be reviewed."
The company also mocked the issue in a follow-up post.
"If you are having a 'CODE RED' Residential Plumbing or Air Conditioning issue, You know you can DEPEND ON US!!!!" the company wrote.
A Facebook page titled "Supporters of Meteorologist Joe Crain" has more than 11,000 likes, and the issue has even reached Congress.
US Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois threw his support behind Crain in a press conference Sunday, according to the State Journal-Register.
Crain is "reliable and he said something that was obvious," Durbin said. "(WICS and Sinclair Broadcasting were) overstating the danger to our community. They're not the only ones doing it, but they seem to be stuck on it and they want to blame him.
"When someone sticks his neck out the way he did, those of us who believe he's right need to say so," he said.