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MTA's Countdown to TV Earthquake

THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

December 15, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

On Sunday, "60 Minutes" will unload on the Los Angeles Metro Rail project, and many Los Angeles big shots are panicked.

Without even seeing a script of the show--"Riots, Earthquakes and Now the Subway"--the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a news conference for Monday to reply to the CBS muckrakers. Over at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, subway builders are consumed with apprehension. Subway opponents happily hope the show will stop the project.

Most of the construction and management failures that will be shown have been previously documented and published by Times reporters. The CBS crew pored through our stories and consulted the reporters many times during the preparation of the TV story.

But this is the Television Age. Mention the name "60 Minutes" and government officials quiver with fear, even though the program has lost the fastball of its youth and has been forced to answer ethical questions about its own conduct.

These stem from CBS killing a "60 Minutes" interview with a former tobacco company executive reported to have made damaging admissions about his old firm. At first it looked as though CBS was buckling to tobacco company pressure. But then we learned that there was another troubling wrinkle: "60 Minutes" had paid the former executive and promised him that it would not air the interview without his permission. Journalists aren't supposed to pay people for interviews or give subjects control over publication or broadcast of a story. A lot of us reporters figured that "60 Minutes" blew it.

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Despite its troubles, "60 Minutes" still knows how to muckrake, television style.

The "60 Minutes" image was established by Mike Wallace, conducting an ambush interview of a sleazy medical clinic operator or a shady government official. He swung a sledgehammer with a wide arc, battering the guilty and, on occasion, the innocent.

Lesley Stahl, the reporter on "Riots, Earthquakes and Now the Subway" has a different manner, employing a stiletto style that's as dangerous as the sledgehammer.

Thursday morning, Kevin Todesco, the show's spokesman, read me what he considered some of the best parts of Stahl's Sunday broadcast. Now I understand why the folks at the MTA are worried.

She got the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's chief executive officer, Franklin White, to give her a tour of the subway. White's management of the project has been strongly criticized, and today an MTA board committee will discuss whether he should be fired.

Stahl asked about the failures. "We take the blame for the failure of people we hired and, of course, we take the blame for our own failures, but there have been a series of things that happened from them and we tried to fix them," White said.

Stahl replied, "If I were a citizen [of Los Angeles] and I heard your answer, I'd say to myself, 'We're spending more money than has ever been spent on a subway in the history of a subway construction and this guy is telling me he is learning on the job?' "

"I mean shouldn't they expect, when you pay that much money, that we shouldn't be having all these mistakes?"

White agreed. "We should not be having those mistakes," he said. "Absolutely agreed. I wish these things did not happen to us. But we have to get better and move on."

Stahl also interviewed a leading subway critic, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who looks as though he may run for mayor of L.A. in 1997 on a platform of opposition to Metro Rail.

Hayden said construction should stop.

"At a certain point, you have to ask whether all the accidents, all the mishaps, all the overruns are accidents that happen or whether the idea itself is fundamentally flawed," he said. "My view is that they ought to stop it in its tracks and declare a victory."

Stahl asked, "Just leave? Walk away?"

"Finish what?" replied Hayden. "They can't finish their fantasy. There are too many problems ahead."

Stahl returned to White and asked him about Hayden's proposal. "Idiocy," said White. "The congestion in 20 years is going to be 10 times what it is now. The region will be paralyzed. And to the extent you can increase public transit ridership, you will reduce pressure on the freeway system and you will have some hope of continuing to move goods and people."

*

The script sounds as though the show will be short on bombshells and heavy on powerful television images.

But it's the images, along with the show's reputation, that has the subway backers worried. They fear the broadcast will weaken support for the project in Congress, which provides the federal funding needed for the subway to reach its planned San Fernando Valley terminus.

"We have to make the case to Congress, and people from other parts of the country have to be shown people here back it," said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

That's why Remy and the subway backers--and Hayden and the subway haters--are treating "Riots, Earthquakes and Now the Subway" as if it were, itself, an earthquake.

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