The Media Burn California Again

Californians are conversant in the ways of fire, in how we manage it or not, in ways that tourists like CNN's Rick Sanchez are not.
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Why do networks send national correspondents to California who apparently know nothing about the place? Or prefer to perpetuate stereotypes about those who live here that telegraph such an embarrassing level of ignorance?

I am speaking in particular here of CNN's Rick Sanchez. Last night, while watching CNN's coverage of the wildfires engulfing Southern California, I happened to catch Sanchez's curious report from one of the fire zones. Sanchez appeared to be dumbfounded by the idea that Californians, whom he breathlessly described as most familiar to Americans as "laidback, Chardonnay-drinking, quiche-eating" hedonists, were helping each other through perhaps the state's worst natural disaster.

By then nearly half a million Californians had been forced to evacuate their homes. "You had better call your brother," my husband phoned to tell me at around 3 pm on Monday, as the Witch Creek fire began to merge with the blaze raging in Rancho Santa Fe, where my brother and sister-in-law live. By then 12,000 San Diegans were camped out at Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley, San Diego State University and the University of San Diego had been closed, residents were being told to stay home, to keep the freeways open for firefighting crews, and the damage in San Diego County alone was edging toward $1 billion. By then the fires raged from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border and the smoke was so heavy in the Los Angeles air near where I live, where miraculously there were no fires, that the skies were gun-metal gray.

"It hurts when I breathe," my daughter said yesterday afternoon, standing out on our driveway and surveying the bleak sky. "I'm going back in."

Only four months before, I had watched flames licking up the verdant, heavily forested hillsides of Griffith Park during that devastating fire. My daughter's school happens to be adjacent to the park, and all afternoon I anxiously watched the fierce winds, praying for them to die. Her school was not evacuated, but because Los Feliz was blocked off the 5, it had taken me nearly two hours of maneuvering on surface streets to get to her.

My point is that Californians are conversant in the ways of fire, in how we manage it or not, in ways that tourists like Rick Sanchez are not.

But Sanchez is hardly alone in the media in his ignorance, or in his callous exploitation of a tragedy for professional gain. Conservative radio host Glenn Beck apparently has never set foot in San Diego County, one of the most staunch Republican strongholds in the country. Otherwise, how could he have declared on his show Monday: "There is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing homes in a forest fire today."

Where do they get these notions? Is it something in the rarified East Coast air?

To be fair, the coverage of the California fires hasn't been all mindless stereotypes and stupidity. The best and most sophisticated coverage has come from local reporters who actually know the territory, can speak authoritatively of the Santa Anas, can compare the Cedar Fire of 2003 with the Witch Fire of 2007, who know that Julian is in San Diego County and that the 5 is the major artery connecting Mexico to Los Angeles. Who know the people of this remarkably diverse state.

Last night I also happened to catch a local reporter's moving interview with a young Hispanic woman who had fled the fire in Lake Arrowhead. She and her husband had started walking down the mountain strolling their baby when a car pulled up. Did the woman and her family want a ride? asked the driver. At this point in her story, the young woman looked at the reporter and smiled. "I said, Oh, yes! Thank you!"

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