Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Parable

On occasion, media critics (themselves members of the tribe they are critiquing) get it right, and yesterday James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times really nailed it. His subject was the media coverage of the wild fires moving through the Angeles National Forest just north of Los Angeles.

I flipped from station to station this week, mesmerized by images of flames rolling over the San Gabriel Mountains and by the sound of newspeople making like war correspondents. They talked about the inexorable "march" of fire across the mountains, the "counterattack" by fire crews. But especially, they seemed fixated on the "air assault."

A reporter on KTTV-TV Channel 11 demanded to know Tuesday morning why no water or retardant was being dumped on a Glendale hillside. A KCAL-TV Channel 9 anchor (and at least one of my colleagues) joined many other newspeople in wondering why the sparkling Canadian import, the Super Scooper, hadn't been thrown into the fire fight.

Owners of threatened homes, politicians and newspeople love nothing more than the sight of a giant plane banking over the foothills and dumping a giant load of water or bright red retardant. Everyone seemed quite smitten with the airplanes. Everyone, that is, except the professional firefighters.

"Just one tool in the toolbox," the men in uniform kept repeating, though it didn't seem many of the newspeople heard them. They just kept asking, in particular, about that erstwhile glitter girl of the fire squadron, the Super Scooper. ...

Not one fire expert I talked to called for more aircraft, all instead stressing the importance of the weather and the ground crews that carve those unglamorous fire breaks, often miles removed from the telegenic air drops.
[Emphasis added]

"Telegenic air drops:" that says it precisely. Even though the water- or retardant-dropping planes are not particularly helpful in terrains such as the Angeles National Forest, that's what the television producers and photo editors want to show. Sweaty, grimy men and women laboring feverishly to cut fire breaks are just not pretty enough or dramatic enough to capture the eyes the advertisers demand.

I can't help feeling it's not just a case of keeping advertisers happy, though, and Mr. Rainey seems to be implying as much:

This week's coverage reminds me of the skewed perspective we get at the start of a Middle Eastern war. The airwaves brim with breathless video-fueled accounts of laser-guided bombs walloping a faceless enemy. We don't see so much of soldiers slogging it out on the ground or the ugly aftermath of combat.

Our media seems to think that if the product they deliver is pretty enough, people will be happier than they would be if presented with the stark and all too often ugly aspects of such endeavors. That certainly would explain the gorgeous news readers we get on television news. It would also explain a lot of other decisions made by producers and editors, such as the one to hire Jenna Bush as an education expert for the network "Today" show.

From the a Washington Post discussion, via Balloon Juice:

To elaborate: Think like a TV producer. Who's going to get viewers: An education expert with years of experience who no one has ever heard of? Or Jenna?

Jenna, of course. The topics covered in a five-minute segment should be well within her talents (plus she'll have producers helping to make her look good.) She can be quite charming when she chooses, and will appeal to the morning television set. This isn't C-Span, people.

No, it isn't C-Span, which is why C-Span came into existence. Wiser people felt that the American people deserved better.

We still do, but I guess the news mongers aren't up to the task.



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