Tuesday, October 30, 2007

LA Times Threw Everything Into Covering The Fires

During my 12-day trip to the East and Canada, there is no question that the most important thing that happened, not only in Southern California, but the world, were the wildfires that destroyed about 2,000 homes in the Southland counties and, probably, forced a lasting reevaluation of what can be done to prevent, or if required, fight such fires.

I haven't had a chance yet to read back copies of the L.A. Times in depth, but a first skimming indicates that the newspaper threw everything it had into covering the fires from every angle, and for the most part, did a fine job.

The article by Christopher Hawthorne today on Page 1, headlined, "Ignoring nature, we build our way into fire's path," followed by a couple of days a somewhat similar New York Times story. But better late than never. It is vital that there now be an ongoing L.A. Times examination of the question of restrictions on building, either total restrictions or requiring safer buildings, in the fire-prone areas. Since it seems evident that global warming will be a dominant problem of our time, this is even more necessary than it has been before.

One of the outstanding articles run by the LAT came the very first day after the outbreak of major fires, and that was by Hector Becerra, whose abilities I believe are underrated by the editors. Under the headline, "loPunishing gusts may be just the beginning," Becerra delivered a clear warning that things were going to get worse. He began with a direct statement: "The fires raging across Southern California are being fueled by gale force winds that meteorologists say will worsen in the next two days as temperatures rise and humidity levels continue to plummet."

At a time when only 39 homes had been burned, this story clearly laid the scene for what happened later. I'm glad to see it ran on Page 1, and it again demonstrates that Becerra is a first class disaster writer, which any paper publishing in California needs.

Three days later, with the Times' headline story reporting that 1,609 homes had been destroyed and more than $1 billion in damage caused by the wildfires, the Times carried three articles that demonstrate, respectively, the strength and occasional weakness of Times coverage.

I've noticed this before: In the disaster period, the Times is not always well organized. Stories are not always read against each other, and sometimes inconsistency creeps in.

This is what happened Thursday, Oct. 25.

On the one hand, there was a good story by Jordan Rau out of Sacramento on Page 1 headlined, "State readiness a flash point," that dealt with the crucial question of how ready the state had been for the storm of fires last week. Although, perhaps unwisely, Rau began with the contestable statement that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration had improved readiness for fires since the last major episode in 2003, he immediately, and appropriately, qualified that by saying that "the state still confronted this week's infernos without all the equipment the experts had advised."

Altogether, the Rau story did a public service by examining the record, which, at best, was very mixed. One statistic stands out: Of 150 new state fire trucks recommended in 2004 by a special panel appointed by Schwarzenegger, only 19 were actually ordered, and none delivered, before last week's outbreak.

Not so successful was a story on Page 1 of the California section by Michael Rothfeld, also out of Sacramento. I believe Rothfeld's is a comparatively new byline in the Times, so perhaps he does not have the seasoning of some more experienced reporters. But this story was unfortunate, because it maintained, in the very headline, that the "Fire crisis plays to the governor's strengths." In then detailing how the governor had flown all over the state, showing up at one fire scene after another, giving multiple news conference and calling and then chaperoning President Bush on a fire inspection trip, Rothfeld gave the governor far too much credit, when already serious questions had arisen, outlined in the Rau, story as to the effectiveness of the governor in acquiring new fire trucks and in otherwise preparing for what happened.

Not until the final paragraph of his story did Rothfeld report the "testy" reply Schwarzenegger had to questions from ABC News as to apparently inadequate firefighting resources made available to Orange County. (The New York Times reported the governor's testy reply higher up in a much more prominent story).

Someone among the editors should have compared the Rothfeld story to the Rau story, and made adjustments.

Also, I question the headlined conclusion in a story the same day by Alan Zarembo that "Global warming not a factor in wildfires, scientists say." I wonder how many scientists were consulted in this, when it was being reported by other publications and on network television that the winds associated with the fires were the highest ever recorded in a Santa Ana wind in Southern California. The subject of global warming and the Southland fires deserves a recap. And the subject should not have been relegated to a minor sidebar, an afterthought, buried at the bottom of Page 24, when it was on everyone's minds across the country.

I probably will have more to say on the coverage of the fires when I have the chance to make a more detailed examination of it. It is apparent, however, that Times photographs were excellent and well-played. It was a tragic coincidence that one of the Times' great past disaster photographers, Jack Gaunt, died during the week that his successors did such a great job of bringing the horror of what happened to millions of Times readers.

--

The New York Times reports that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is making a surprise visit to Iran today to discuss further proposals made by Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, to the Iranian government for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. This deserves top attention, since it has been evident for some time that any resolution is liable to be the product of Russian-Iranian talks. There is every likelihood, in fact, that the Russian government is representing the West in this matter.

It is within this context that the recent visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates might be examined. Western diplomatic writers have not perhaps been cognizant enough of the cooperation on some matters that seems to exist between the Russian and American governments.

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