By Natalie Finn
Special to TelevisionWeek
KNBC-TV news director Bob Long was at a conference last month when he learned his station had won a 2005 Peabody Award for its four-part series “Burning Questions,” which investigated environmental and safety hazards at the site of an upscale commercial-residential development in Playa Vista, a neighborhood in southwest Los Angeles.
“I was with a couple of guys who’d just won the Pulitzer Prize, so it’s always nice to have bragging rights when you’re with the heavy hitters,” Mr. Long said.
It’s probably time for him to accept that KNBC might be one of those heavy hitters. The NBC Universal owned-and-operated West Coast flagship station boasts the No. 1 11 p.m. newscast in the Los Angeles market, and earlier this year the 5 p.m. edition won its second consecutive Golden Mike Award, for best 60-minute news broadcast, and an Edward R. Murrow Regional Award for feature reporting.
But this year marks the station’s first Peabody win, considered by many to be the Pulitzer of broadcasting. As it turns out, the award was years in the making.
About four years ago KNBC producer Frank Snepp was apartment-hunting in Marina Del Rey, Calif., when he spotted a sign reminding potential residents of Proposition 65, a state ballot initiative otherwise known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. The law requires the state government to publish an annual list of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects so residents could be better informed about where they live and the products they buy.
While he was touring nearby Playa Vista, which is located near Southern California Gas Co.’s storage reservoir, Mr. Snepp started a conversation with a representative of real estate developer Playa Capital and inquired about reports that there were hazardous substances onsite. (As it turned out, environmental tests found high levels of carcinogens and other toxins in the soil at Playa Vista and, as is the case in much of Los Angeles County, methane gas burbling under the surface.)
“He looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘Oh, no. There are no such issues,'” Mr. Snepp said. “I knew then either that he was clueless or he was spinning me, and I knew a story was there.”
Mr. Snepp, a former CIA agent and the author of a book about the Vietnam War and another book detailing the lawsuit the CIA brought against him for not getting official clearance to write about Vietnam, eventually acquired a document from a source at the California Public Utilities Commission refuting the statements by the developers and the Los Angeles City Council that the utmost safety precautions were in place, including shields to prevent methane from leaking beneath the complex.
“That document basically showed that there was a good even chance that storage gas in a facility right next door to the complex was leaking,” Mr. Snepp said. “We had statements from the developer, from the city, from the Department of Building and Safety, which held that there was no leakage from the storage facility. … It was a ’60 Minutes’ moment discovering that.”
The years-long investigation into the situation at Playa Vista resulted in “Burning Questions,” with installments airing May 25, June 28, Aug. 17 and Oct. 27, 2005, during KNBC’s 5 p.m. newscast. Each segment is available for viewing at www.NBC4.com.
Dangerous Gas Leaks
From public records and talks with scientists, environmentalists and public officials, Mr. Snepp and veteran KNBC news anchor Paul Moyer pieced together their case and discovered that a methane shield under one apartment building was, in fact, leaking and that oil deposits beneath the building foundations and gas seeping from the nearby storage facility made a possibly explosive combination.
They demonstrated the principle on camera by filling a bag with gas obtained from an underground leak, exposing it to fire and then watching as the bag burst into flames.
“It was a ‘Chinatown’ kind of story,” Mr. Snepp said. “Bureaucrats, varied money interests, hugely complex scientific issues and a lot of people who didn’t want the truth to come out-it was really from start to finish a mystery story.”
According to Mr. Snepp and Mr. Moyer, it was nearly impossible to get representatives of Playa Capital and the Southern California Gas Co. to go on-camera to present their side of the story.
“They were not only not willing to give it, they were extremely hostile to us,” Mr. Snepp said.
“It just was very frustrating for me,” Mr. Moyer said, saying he had interviews scheduled with the developers and other targets of the investigation, but that they canceled at the last minute. “I believe in fairness and I believe there are two sides to a story, and they should have been allowed to tell theirs, and they wanted no part of it. “
Part four of the series focused on the investigation’s legal ramifications. Before more development is allowed in Playa Vista, new environmental and safety studies will have to be conducted.
On May 25, 2005, Mr. Long and KNBC President and General Manager Paula Madison decided to lead off the 5 p.m. newscast with the first installment of “Burning Questions.” It ran more than eight minutes, quite a large piece of time these days for a local news story.
“I have no trouble clearing the schedule for this kind of reporting,” Mr. Long said. “This is considered shocking in TV news, where many people believe that God ordained nothing longer than a minute-15. But God didn’t say that. I know … I was around.
Nobody at KNBC, a channel that long ago stopped covering high-speed car chases even though most other local stations in Los Angeles kept at it, seemed surprised at the airtime given to “Burning Questions,”
“I think the way you set yourself apart in local news is to just, as Bob Long says, you just do the news,” Mr. Moyer said. “If you invest in stories like ‘Burning Questions’ … in the long term those investments pay off. I don’t like car chases anymore.”