A few weeks ago, I briefly thought that a huge earthquake was about to hit California. First I saw an alarming newspaper headline about The Next Big One. Then another online. Then I heard a snatch of a radio report. I was just grazing, and I didn't get the gist of any of these stories. You know how it goes, news by osmosis. But it all had an unmistakable urgency. Scientists were weighing in. The tone was grave.
It crossed my mind that my California relatives might be in danger and maybe should get out.
I realize that this is reading like a bad sitcom script. And you know the ending: The Big One didn't hit. It wasn't an earthquake I heard coming. It was a media quake—the run-up to the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco disaster that was observed a few days ago. Silly me, forgot to mark the calendar.
The media never forget a birthday or an anniversary. The slightest sesquicentennial starts the old gears creaking. Big stories are assigned—takeouts, they're called—months ahead. Thus, the lavish pictures and graphic renderings of the Great Quake's devastation. The ancient survivors who were located and trundled out. The geologists quoted far and wide (darkly, darkly) on the enduring threat. The sudden spike in appearances of "temblor"—a very special word we meet only in earthquake journalism, exclusively on second reference.
Anniversaries are a media tradition, of course. But are they also becoming a growth industry? It seems so lately, when there's always another one coming down the track. Mozart's massive 250th birthday bash was barely over when the countdown to Freud's 150th began. The first Katrina anniversary will be this summer, followed close on by the fifth anniversary of 9/11—are you ready? Throw in dead presidents and other celebs, great battles, legendary storms, beloved movies and books, scientific discoveries, moon landings, and we're talking commemoration as compulsion.
I don't mean to be churlish about this. Journalistic staples exist for a good reason: People like them. These stories are the media version of a pde down Main Street, a civic ceremony honoring events and people that the collective consciousness deems honorable.
For editors and producers, they're an easy call. In a world overcrowded with news, anything with a "peg" stands out, and numbers ending in five or zero are the sturdiest of pegs. It also helps if there's a major PR push behind the thing—planning committees, VIPs, long kicklines of flacks. Hooplas run on grease.
Still, they can be a pleasure to consume. Once I realized that California was probably safe for a few months, I enjoyed a lot of the coverage. The high point was National Geographic's cover story, "Quake: The Next Big One," which wisely didn't dwell much on the 1906 event—plenty of that elsewhere. Instead, it turned the dreary, painstaking science of earthquakes into vibrant narrative, including a wonderfully droll section on Japan's conviction that it can predict coming quakes: "This is a country where the trains run on time, and earthquakes are supposed to do the same," writes Joel Achenbach (who, I should note, is a friend of mine).
The low point? USA Today's heavy-breathing front-pager, especially the headline: "Disaster Is Coming to San Francisco ... " Below this was a photo of the city in ruins, and then the coy come-on's kicker: "... The Question Is When It Will Arrive."
Local media are generally to be forgiven for their boosterish excesses. But it was hard to forgive the San Francisco Chronicle for "Risk of Quakes Adds Spice to Life: San Franciscans Brave the Dangers."
That story mentioned Simon Winchester's recent best-seller, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, a book whose canny timing I would have bitterly deplored if I hadn't stumbled on an interview with the author on his publisher's Web site. Explaining why he wrote the book, Winchester lays it bare: "April 2006 is, of course, the 100th anniversary and, you know, being a journalist, I'm very alive, perhaps rather more alive than I should be, to anniversaries, particularly centenaries."
Now that's a quotation that deserves to be celebrated—annually.