Fires don’t discriminate

By Anita Doberman: Columnist

I followed with great interest and apprehension the California fires, not only because I fear any kind of atmospheric phenomenon, but because I empathized with those who lost their homes and left behind their possessions. Having lived in hurricane prone areas for a few years, I know that it can be excruciating to leave things behind — a home can mean so much to people.

The news reported on the fires and the thousands of people who had to leave. The media also focused on Hollywood stars who were affected, or in some cases, simply inconvenienced by the fires. Our obsession with celebrities’ lives spilled even into this disaster. One online news site had a story about Hollywood big shots who had seen smoke or flames or were told to evacuate. A prominent picture of DreamWorks executive chief Jeffrey Katzenberg’ home being iced over to delay the fire dominated the article. It was one of the most popular on the Web site.

Other newspapers spent time describing how studios were delayed or how notable personalities evacuated, including Sally Field, Kelsey Grammer and even residents of a posh drug and alcohol rehabilitation center (the one that Lindsey Lohan went to), including its numerous horses.

Well, I am glad everyone is well and safe. But too much attention was spent on these people at the expense of the common man. The ones we shouldn’t worry about are those who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it, and probably own numerous homes all over the world. I am certain they can find a place to stay. One article mentioned that a Ritz Carlton outside the danger zone was fully booked, proving my point.

I am not sure why we are so fascinated by celebrities and the way they were marginally impacted by an event out of their control. Part of it is a natural interest with those who are famous, to see that after all they are just like us — minus their millions. No matter who we are, bad things can happen. Or perhaps it’s because it’s simply more interesting to read about celebrities than everyday people. The newsworthy disaster that is destroying lives and livelihoods suddenly becomes just another gossip column.

I’m not immune either, of course. I have a subscription to Us Weekly, but I was pretty indifferent when our subscription to U.S. News lapsed. We are all busy, and it’s simply more fun, sometimes to read about the unreality of celebrity life, even when it’s harsh reality turned into unreality. It is a consequence of the Internet and cable television, though not their fault — they are simply giving us what we ask for. The market is speaking, and it says that if people wanted more serious news, they would look for it.

We’re not wrong for wanting to see the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But this tragedy really brought into focus that we do so to the exclusion, sometimes, of thinking about the lifestyles of non-rich and ordinary, and the great men and women who protect them everyday, not just when someone “important” is in trouble.