This last weekend, I had a tiny and depressing demonstration about the facile nature of local news – the news making machinery behind the popular song as the pop song used to go. I did local news-gathering myself as an in-house broadcast professional, doing a daily radio news program for Armed Forces Radio, Seoul Korea edition. I know how the pudding is made; have the basic framework for the story, go out and talk to people for the bits that fill in the story already mentally mapped out in your mind – and go and do it again the next day, and the day following. Daily news is sausage; stuff that casing with whatever the story requires, a judicious combination of meat or filler.

There was a house fire last Sunday afternoon in our neighborhood – the first I knew of it (since I was working the final edit of Luna City #9) was when the Daughter Unit flung open the door, saying that a nearby house was on fire, that the dogs from the house were running loose on the street, and could I bring some doggie treats and help everyone catch them?

It was a ruckus of major proportions in our normally quiet little patch of suburbia. The street leading up to ours was clogged with fire department vehicles – ladder, pumper, hose, and command trucks, even an ambulance, a couple of command trucks – all for a small house across the street and three down from ours. The parked FD vehicles filled the block and went down on either side for another half a block. There was evil-smelling smoke filling the air, gushing from the roof and eave vents – no actual flames to be seen. All the neighbors were out in front, or gathered around, wondering what-the-hell… Because this is a small and moderately cohesive neighborhood, nearly all residents are owners of modest cottages on small plots of land; working-class and military retirees. Most of us know each other by sight, especially since the Chinese Commie Crud has descended upon us. (We have seen more of our neighbors out and about in the streets, walking dogs, working out in their driveways or in their open garages.)

We retrieved one of the loose dogs from underneath truck parked in front of a neighboring house, someone else located a second runaway dog, but that still left three dogs missing. Meanwhile, the FD did their thing, and eventually the smoke diminished. The owner of the house on fire sat out with her neighbors from across the street, with her two rescued dogs and the Daughter Unit, waiting for the fire to be extinguished. It had started in the kitchen according to what everyone was saying and filled the house with smoke within minutes. The homeowner had been at the grocery store when the fire started – she had finished fixing tacos for Sunday dinner, put everything away, turned off the stove burners (this is an important detail) and ran out to the grocery store for fresh lettuce. The couple living next door had alerted her to the fire with a call to her cellphone. All the other neighbors on the street was standing around, hoping that the fire wouldn’t burn through the roof, because then it could easily move into trees, and to other houses.

When the FD got the fire extinguished, some of the firefighters went into the house – I did see that oxygen tanks were in play, which was routine and sensible. Three of the dogs were still missing at that point – and that was when the firefighters carried out two unwieldy and big dog crates. The two biggest dogs had been in the house – a big black and white standard poodle and a slightly smaller white malamute. I was standing with another neighbor in front of his house, and we were both horrified that the dogs had been inside the burning house the whole time. (They had obviously been frightened and went to hide in their crates) We were familiar with both; very friendly dogs, if a bit noisy. Two firefighters began doing chest compression on the unconscious dogs. After ten minutes or so another firefighter brought up the medical kit and began with oxygen. We had hope, but the longer they worked on the dogs, the more it was obvious that it was too late. But the last missing dog, the smallest and oldest of the lot was carried out of the house at that moment – still alive. He had been hiding under the bed in the master bedroom, and somehow escaped the worst of the smoke.  

It must have been a rather boring and otherwise uneventful day in Greater San Antonio, because  camera guy and a reporter from the local ABC affiliate showed up; they set up on the sidewalk, not twenty feet from there the Daughter Unit, the owner of house on fire and a cluster of neighbors were also waiting. The camera operator and spent all of about fifteen or twenty minutes on the scene. Honestly, it was not the least bit dramatic a fire – just lots of smoke, so really, as a news event, fifteen minutes was about all it was worth. In that time, the reporter spoke to a single firefighter, chosen at random, apparently. Didn’t seem to make any effort to approach any of the neighbors, dozens of whom were standing around, or the homeowner herself. Just a few words with the firefighter, some random footage, nothing more than that. But when the story was aired and posted later that afternoon, the cause of the fire was blamed on a pan left on an active stove burner. Which wasn’t the case at all; if the reporter had bothered to speak to the homeowner – who was standing no more than twenty feet from the camera the whole time, he would have found out that she had not left anything on the stove. She was done cooking for the day. The likely cause of the fire was that one of the electric stovetop burners had a short in it; and lately had begun turning itself off and otherwise functioning erratically. The house is still standing, by the way – from the outside still looks perfectly normal, but the interior will have to be completely gutted, and rebuilt. The homeowners’ insurance company are doing very well for her so far, salvaging what can be salvaged from the inside.

It’s the sheer carelessness of that brief reportage on the fire, and the very minimal effort put into it that has annoyed me and dismayed the Daughter Unit. Just a little bit of effort on the reporters’ part would have resulted in a more accurate story, and one which wouldn’t have made the owner of the burned house appear like an absentminded ditz to the public at large. A little thing – but telling. Discuss as you wish.  

1 Comment

  1. Just don’t get Gell-Mann Amnesia.

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    (quoting Michael Chriton)