Fires illuminate hazy view of California

News coverage filled with sterotypes

As the smoke cleared over Southern California from a rash of devastating, lung-clogging wildfires, two media trends came into focus with the sharpened clarity that sometimes only a crisis provides.

For shorthand’s sake, let’s call them “Things We Learned in the Fires,” Parts I and II:

Part I: The East Coast media’s view of Southern California, even without plumes of smoke obscuring it, remains pathetically, almost comically parochial.

Despite this vast region’s unparalleled variety, the prevailing image of Southern California from a distance is best summed up in a joke by the comic Gallagher, in which he compared Los Angeles with a bowl of granola — a mixture of fruits, nuts and flakes.

This perception neatly dovetails with the Eastern establishment’s condescending attitude, from the D.C. politicians who come here strictly to tap into big local money to news organizations that capitalize on celebrity foibles as a growing component of their tabloid-style content (even MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann incorporates a regular “Keeping Tabs” segment chronicling star shenanigans) — a paper-thin perspective buttressed, fairly or not, by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current starring role as California’s governor.

The myopia crested in the idiocy of radio and CNN host Glenn Beck, who drew appropriate rebuke for saying while the fires raged, “There is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” Never mind that most of the homes were lost in San Diego, a typically conservative bastion, as Beck simple-mindedly lumped together everyone west of Nevada under the Democratic tent.

Even more traditional anchors, however, couldn’t resist the La-la-land stereotypes, with CNN’s Don Lemon delivering a little quip about Yoga being offered in Qualcomm Stadium, the spot where fire evacuees assembled.

Back in the 1980s, a college professor of mine dubbed this phenomenon “California, the bizarre,” attributing the trend in part to the time-lapse in receiving taped news from the West Coast. Yet with satellite technology, that should hardly be an excuse today, suggesting the roots of such dismissive behavior extend considerably deeper — betraying a New York-centric attitude that has trouble taking this “cultural wasteland” seriously beyond the most convenient and easily exploited labels.

A brief anecdote here helps illustrate the point: A few weeks ago, a program on National Public Radio wanted to discuss the fall TV season, setting an interview for 7:30 a.m. Imagine my delight and surprise fumbling in the dark when the phone rang at 4:30, the producer having forgotten to adjust for Pacific time — not the first time, by the way, New York bookers have overlooked that their morning is our middle of the night.

Southern California is hardly without its shortcomings, but in terms of granola, it’s far from the only place to find flakes.

Part II: As TV news becomes more inconsequential, it’s harder to take the talent seriously when disaster strikes and they must suddenly behave like real reporters again.

Think of this as the boy who cried wolf, only here, it’s the news operations that cried Paris and Britney and Lindsay, with a little O.J. and Phil thrown in. After a steady diet of nonsense, giddy morning programs on the Los Angeles Fox and Tribune stations sought to turn on a dime and become respectable bearers of bad tidings.

Maybe some viewers don’t have this problem, but for me, it’s difficult to instantly banish the customary posture of these local yuk-fests as an early-morning cocktail party. Mercifully, they quickly reverted to form once the flames began subsiding, with KTTV delivering a timely expose of sexy Halloween get-ups.

Nor are crusty critics alone in exhibiting dismay regarding this slide into the journalistic ooze. In a speech last month, California’s first lady Maria Shriver said she wouldn’t return to NBC News after her husband’s public service ends, having become convinced while surveying the Anna Nicole Smith media circus that “the news business had changed, and so had I.”

While nobody expects a return to the days of Edward R. Murrow, TV stations pay a price, however subtly, for transforming their newscasts into “Extra” with local weather.

Viewers might turn to these stations during crises out of necessity, but when they cover their mouths and noses, it isn’t just to keep out the smoke.

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