Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On Transport, Fires, LAT Attention Span Too Brief

When John Carroll became editor of the L.A. Times in 2000, with the Tribune purchase, one of the things he told the staff was that he liked "shorts." Every good newspaper runs a lot of shorts, he said.

But shorts should deal with comparatively less important matters, not the central issues of the day, as the exclusive mention of them. They should provide no excuse not to deal on a continuing basis, with big issues in full-length articles. And on these issues, it is better to use staff-written stories, not simply run the Associated Press, on the most consequential matters.

All this is pertinent now, because the L.A. Times, which normally runs a lot on the Southland's critical problems with traffic congestion, just missed one big transportation story, running only a brief. And after giving the recent wildfires the monumental, all-encompassing coverage they deserved, the newspaper has quickly fallen into old, bad habits of not using its staff to cover the fire issue on a continuing basis. Two thousand homes are burned to the ground, and the Times editors don't remember them with staff assignments three weeks later?

On traffic congestion, there was in yesterday's paper a short reporting that the Federal Transit Administration is giving a $1.7 billion grant to the New York Metropolitan Transportation
Authority toward building the Second Avenue Subway in New York City. It is altogether a $17 billion-dollar project to relieve congestion on the Lexington Avenue line. Groundbreaking was last May.

Why is this a consequential story for Los Angeles? It is, when you consider that, so far, federal contributions toward building a desperately-needed extension of Los Angeles' Metro Red Line to Santa Monica have been zero.

Why is it that New York gets billions for a secondary subway line, and Los Angeles gets nothing toward a desperately-needed trunk line?

I suggest that one big reason is that L.A. officials and L.A. representatives in Congress are not doing enough to lobby for federal funds for the project here.

The mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, ran on a platform of building more rail transit. What has been the result so far? Two paltry light rail lines, one of which will go only so far toward the West Side as Culver City.

We have a right to expect a better performance, more activity from Villaraigosa, also certainly, from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who, in a terrible mistake years ago, was instrumental in cutting off funding for a subway extension to the West Side. Since, in part, he represents the West Side, he should be in Washington every week working for this. If he did, he would be doing some good, perhaps, and not wasting his time sitting in board meetings, as he does now in Los Angeles. Needless to say, too, every Los Angeles congressman should have, as a leading preoccupation, the obtaining of federal funds for subway building.

This is a story worthy of the attention, big-time attention, of the L.A. Times, if editors from Los Angeles, not Chicago, were in charge, and New York's remarkable success in getting federal money instead of Los Angeles should be on Page 1, not a short. With such an inattentive newspaper, it's not a surprise that the politicians aren't paying much attention either.

Building the subway to Santa Monica is estimated to cost about $10 billion, $7 billion less than New York's less necessary subway.

On the fire issue, the Times a few days ago ran a story out of Sacramento by the Associated Press examining in some detail but not huge length, how the state government performed in the fires. The story raised questions about the diligence of the Schwarzenegger Administration in preparing for them.

This story should have been covered at greater length by the Times' Sacramento bureau. Why did it leave such a matter to the AP?

Traffic congestion is an every day affair, and the fires do immense damage every few years at the outside, and sometimes even more frequently. The Times must give these issues continuing, attention with beat reporters.

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The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is out on the Republican race in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has made an astonishing gain. Huckabee now trails former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts by just four points, 24% to 28%. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee is third with 15% and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is fourth with 13%. Sen. John McCain, who has all but pulled out of Iowa because his progressive position on illegal immigration has gone over there like a lead balloon, is fifth with 6%.

This compares with Romney leading Huckabee 26% to 8% in July, and shows again that the contest in this early state is extremely volatile. Just two days ago, the poll on the Democratic side showed Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois taking his first lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, 30% to 26%.

Forty-three days to go until Iowa votes. Between now and then, what other twists and turns will there be? And when, if ever, will the L.A. Times catch up to the Post by polling in Iowa? Even though L.A. Times polling has been cut back, if any polling is done, it should be in the Iowa contest, and New Hampshire as well. The very future of America may well be at stake.

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