Monday, September 07, 2009

Screen Shots

"It's 5 p.m. on Saturday, the biggest fire in year[s] is in the backyards of thousands of homes from Lake View Terrace to Pasadena, and NOT ONE Los Angeles TV station is providing continuous coverage." ---Email to the LA Observed website.

It's unclear if we will learn many lessons from the Station Fire. We have seen this beast before and we know him by his many names: the Old Fire, the Cedar Fire, the Oakland Hills Firestorm, the Malibu Fire.

But amid the triumphs and tragedies that these sort of disasters provide, there was scathing criticism. The media --- specifically television --- is being assailed for their coverage of the fire, or lack of it, particularly in its beginning stages.

No less a personage than L.A. County Mike Antonovich lashed out at television news stations for being negligent in failing to provide comprehensive fire coverage. "There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and
animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go," Antonovich said in an interview. "I'm upset. The media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county's history."

Normally, I would take Mike Antonovich's views with a grain of salt. His relationship with the media has traditionally ranged from lukewarm to lousy.

But in this case he had a point.

The LA Observed reader went on to write: "A few minutes ago, KTTV popped in with a brief update after the Dodger game, then returns to 'Whacked Out Sports.' KCBS did a half hour at 4:30 then went to an NFL preseason game. Sister KCAL is in syndicated schlock. KNBC: regular programming, some sort of taped feature show on hot cars at Mt. Pinos. KABC: live coverage from ABC News of the Kennedy interment. KTLA: some show about warlocks and evil spirits."

Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, herself an evacuee, wrote: "...Over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout. Granted, Ted Kennedy's funeral preempted many stories, but hours before my neighborhood was placed under mandatory evacuation, I could find nothing, NOTHING, about the fire on any TV
station, local or 24-hour news..."

Keith Esparros, assistant news director for KNBC-TV Channel 4, said that his station did cover the fire extensively in newscasts, updates and on the station's website with several reporters and crews over the weekend.

He called it an "odd fire" that started small and generally burned away from populated areas when it started midweek.

But news reports from early on indicated it was anything but an "odd fire."

"Residents are being evacuated in the northern part of La Canada Flintridge as the Station Fire rages out of control," the Pasadena Star-News reported on Friday, Aug 28 in a story that was written late Thursday night.

"At about 8 p.m. last night, the Station Fire was 10-percent contained and had burned 500 acres. Overnight, firefighters lost whatever containment they had and the fire has now scorched 1500 acres, spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service Gabriel Alvarez said."

By Saturday, The Times was reporting that "the Station fire was spreading rapidly to the east and west... prompting evacuations in La Canada Flintridge, Glendale, Altadena and Big Tujunga Canyon as temperatures reached triple digits."

I was close enough to the fire to be concerned. When I turned on the TV Saturday morning, I saw no coverage. I was forced to go Old School and rely on radio for information.

TV may have given coverage to the fire over the weekend but it was spotty and seen only during regularly scheduled newscasts, not the wall-to-wall coverage we have come to expect.

The issue also calls into question the definition of "coverage."

Webstites, blogs, tweets, texts and other electronic networking sites were operating at full speed over the weekend. Some of it provided legitimate information. Some of it, written by so-called "citizen journalists," spread rumors and engaged in conjecture.

It was coverage, however, if you chose to define it that way.

And it was cheaper than having a full contingent of reporters, camera operators and helicopter pilots in the field. After all, TV news has faced the same sort of cutbacks experienced in print media. Diminished staffs result in a diminished product.

There was also a bit of geographical ignorance going on here. I heard one newscaster wonder out loud where La Crescenta is. Others fumbled the words "La Canada Flintridge" as if they were attempting to speak an obscure tongue.

The affected Foothill communites operate by choice under the radar and don't have the star appeal of Malibu, for instance where, if you're lucky, you can spot a movie star watering down his roof while the flames burn nearby.

Of course, if Michael Jackson had lived in La Canada, the coverage would have been unprecedented.

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