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JOEL STEIN

Really, it was no big deal

So we had an earthquake. Must TV scare the out-of-state relatives too?

August 01, 2008|JOEL STEIN

The few seconds of mild shaking during Tuesday's earthquake didn't do much damage, but CNN's coverage did. My daily productivity was cut in half when I had to spend all afternoon answering calls and e-mails from my parents, grandmother, cousins and everyone else I know on the East Coast to tell them I was a proud survivor. The only thing that broke was the cellphone system, because Sprint had an 800% spike in calls -- half of which were from my family.

I understand that the 24-hour cable news cycle requires networks to make events more exciting. But even though it might be technically accurate, is a giant red banner across the bottom of the TV screen reading "EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA" honest news coverage? Did they reject "WESTERN U.S. SMOTE BY ANGRY GOD"? Here's a good rule for my family: If the news channel is telling you about a disaster, but it is broadcasting footage of a bright, sunny day, then I'm fine.

Even the usually responsible Associated Press reported in its first paragraph that the quake "sent people running into the streets." Really? Running into the streets? Like in a "Godzilla" movie? How about "sent people walking onto the sidewalks so they could take a break from their jobs and talk about the earthquake, and then get coffee before going back inside to check some news websites until it was time to go home."

I am touched that so many people I know called and e-mailed to check on my safety. But I'm pretty sure that they called because the news did such a poor job of explaining what the vast majority of earthquakes feel like. So tell your worried aunt in the Midwest to do this experiment: Stand in one room of a house. Have someone in the next room jump up and down three to seven times. Then both people meet in the hall and say, "Was that an earthquake?"

At my house, nothing fell -- even though my hippie-raised wife has lined each of our window sills with little pieces of brightly colored glass that I assume her parents found on the beach or got at a Grateful Dead show in exchange for two veggie burritos and her little brother. The most dramatic photo of the quake the Los Angeles Times could find was a guy picking up some deodorant off the floor at Kmart. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I do think Kmart is desperate enough for publicity to knock over some Speed Stick.

I also suspect that my relatives, as well as the East Coast-based news organizations, get a little over-enthusiastic when things go bad in a state that's always sunny and ahead of them on trends. Mudslides, fires, El Nino storms, car chases, celebrity murders -- I get calls during all of them to make sure I'm all right, even if the event occurred nowhere near where I live. Maybe if we chopped California up into smaller states, it would cut down on the calls from the geographically illiterate East Coasters. I don't have to check in with my mom in New Jersey when there's a hurricane in South Carolina, but my phone rings whenever Big Sur is on fire.

Also, let's fix the Richter scale, perhaps the worst form of measurement since horsepower. Tuesday's magnitude 5.4 does sound pretty close to the 6.7 of 1994's Northridge earthquake, which caused about $40 billion in non-CNN related damage. But it was 1% as powerful. Does that mean that normal, non-earthquake hours are a magnitude 4? Who makes up a rating system that works on a logarithmic scale? "Dude, I wouldn't date her. She's a 6.3. But her friend is a smoking 6.6." Get the rating system out of the hands of scientists and let people on the Internet assign quakes one to four stars, like everything else.

And please, CNN, next time there's an earthquake or a fire, give my family members who watch your network all day a little context. I just need Wolf Blitzer to say, "Although this is a very exciting development we'll be following closely for the next 48 hours, no one in L.A. is dead, injured or at all interested." Then maybe I can limit their news-related calls to how little my house is worth now.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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