LA County lawmaker critical of lack of TV coverage

LOS ANGELES (AP) - September 2, 2009 The media let people down as they faced danger, not knowing where to go or what to do, Supervisor Michael Antonovich said, adding he had heard the complaint from "countless constituents."

"Surely informing the public of life and safety measures, evacuation centers, is more vital than the wall-to-wall coverage that we've seen of the custody fights for Michael Jackson's and Britney Spears' children," Antonovich said Wednesday.

Television stations countered that they provided comprehensive coverage of the fire that burned for days before becoming a threat to residents and turning deadly.

Chris Ender, senior vice president of communications for CBS Television, said information was provided to the public in a variety of ways.

"The coverage from our stations - CBS2 and KCAL9 - has been comprehensive and ongoing with news programming, on-screen crawls, text alerts and updates on the station's respective Web sites," he said.

The 219-square mile fire started Aug. 26 and has destroyed more than 60 homes, killed two firefighters, forced thousands of people from their homes and turned millions hoarse with its smoke. It was 22 percent contained on Wednesday.

Through the years, as many as seven Los Angeles television stations have switched to instant 24-7 coverage of events from the air and on the ground. Some of the events that warranted such coverage were the 1992 riots that resulted in 55 deaths and nearly 2,400 injuries; the 1993 wildfires that burned in six counties and caused $1 billion damage; and the 1994 Northridge earthquake with 72 dead, 9,000 injured and $25 billion damage.

Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara and her family were ordered to leave her La Crescenta home over the weekend. Coverage picked up Monday, she wrote, but during the first few days, "it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout."

"It was as if it wasn't happening, except it was, because I could see it, sheets of flame rippling in the dark, just down the street and over the rise." She said she was "professionally shocked, not to mention personally frustrated."

Keith Esparros, assistant news director at KNBC-TV, said coverage decisions were based on the fact that the fire started relatively small and burned into the wilderness.

"This fire behaved differently than others, specially those Santa Ana wind-driven fires that start with a spark and within an hour are up in people's backyards," he said. "We are on television at that point telling people what we believe they need to know."

KNBC did break into prime-time programming because of the Palos Verdes fire last Thursday night "for what we thought was a threat to lives and property," he said.

As for the Los Angeles fire, "the decision was made to cover it, but we didn't feel there was a need to be on 24 hours a day at that point," he said, pointing out there were updates on the station Web site along with Facebook and Twitter.

"We were getting the word out using media other than the broadcast transmitter," he said.

Rick Drobner's home and art studio is close to mountain slopes that burned in La Crescenta.

"Unfortunately the news media was not helpful. Everytime you tried to turn on, at least television, there was very little information," Drobner said. "Of course I felt entitled to know what's going on in my neighborhood."

Television and radio stations weren't Antonovich's only targets. He also called for a thorough review of the county's response to the fire.

He wants to look at how Web sites handle notices of evacuations, road closures, shelters, transit schedules and school closures. And he wants to look at the county's mass emergency notification system.

"The county's public information office has the capability to provide the same level of service to its residents but failed to do

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