Quake vs. the big freeze: Let the TV anchors decide

It was the Monday of the California earthquake and my driveway was frozen and I could not get my car out of the garage.

And I struggled to decide which was the greater disaster.


It was like the old Mel Brooks joke about the difference between comedy and tragedy: Tragedy is if I should get a hangnail. Comedy is if you should slip on a banana peel and die.

But these days we are all on the information superhighway, right? We do not actually have to go to work, right?


So I went to my computer and dialed up my syndicate in Los Angeles and tried to send them a column.

And a strange voice came out of the speaker on my modem: "Due to the earthquake activity, we cannot complete your call. Please try again later."

So I sat down in front of the television and watched: I could monitor all four networks, plus old videotape of the Lorena Bobbitt trial, plus a seminar on political consulting on C-Span.

I could also switch over to The Learning Channel and hear a scientist say: "Los Angeles will never fall into the ocean. That is not the problem. The problem is that Los Angeles is moving north. In 12 million years, it will be a suburb of San Francisco."

I kept calling my syndicate's number to give them the good news. After about a half hour, Liz, the receptionist answered.

Are you OK? I asked. Is everything all right? Should you be there?

"Sure," she said. "Why?"

Wasn't there an earthquake? I mean, it's all over TV.


"Yeah," Liz, who was born in California and is used to natural disasters, said. "But it didn't affect me. Though some people are late for work this morning."

You are not going to fall into the ocean, I said. You are going to be a suburb of San Francisco.

"When?" Liz said.

Twelve million years, I said.

"Oh," she said, losing interest.

And who can blame her? I was all excited by the great earthquake, but she was not.


Disasters get compressed on TV: We see quick cuts of shattered highways followed by collapsed buildings followed by ruptured water mains followed by flaming gas mains.

In Liz's world, the real world, those things were all taking place, but they were widely separated.

And in between all of them was a lot of normalcy that didn't make TV: Buildings that didn't collapse, highways that didn't shatter, gas and water mains that didn't rupture.

"How is the weather where you are?" Liz asked.

Icy, I said. I can't get down my driveway to work.

"How can you live like that?" she said seriously. "I could never live like that. I could never drive in that."


Most people here can't either, I said. But I think Los Angeles is going through worse.

"Not to me," Liz said. "I'd rather be here."

So we made a bet: We would judge which coast was having the worst time by seeing where the TV anchors went. Wherever Brokaw, Jennings and Rather/Chung went, that would be the big story.

As it turned out, it was sort of a tie. Brokaw and Jennings flew to California Monday night. And Rather and Chung stayed in New York. (Tuesday, Rather flew to California. Maybe he had theater tickets for Monday.)

I don't know why anchors do this. But they feel they have to be there, reading the lines that somebody else wrote for them, live on the scene.

And it does heighten the drama. We know we are really bad off if one of these people shows up in our town.


I also learned from TV how the magnitude of an earthquake is really measured. Yes, they use the Richter scale. But I never understood what that meant until a TV reporter in Los Angeles was trying to explain how serious the aftershocks were.

"That last one was a 4.5," she said. "When a shock gets to 5, we stop regular programming and do a cut-in with the news."

And for the first time, I understood the Richter scale: Five and above means they interrupt the soap operas. And that's serious.

Later on Monday, President Clinton was asked by a group of reporters about the earthquake.

"Like all of you," he said, "I was able to watch it all on television. It was really something."

And so I felt less guilty about sitting around all day and watching TV instead of going into the office.


Besides, Clinton gets to work at home.