'Frontline' relies on wisecracks in report on GM

October 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Want to hear something really shocking?

The main reason General Motors went from being the richest company in America to one that lost a record $23.5 billion last year is that its top executives didn't want to hear bad news.

What, you already knew that? And, furthermore, you didn't think it was such a great bit of insight the first time you heard it, since most top executives don't want to hear bad news from their lieutenants?

Well, it takes most of 90 minutes for "Frontline" to say that in its "Heartbeat of America" report, which launches its 12th season on PBS at 9 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67).

If you're looking for exclusive information or insights, this is not the the report for you.

Nor is this the kind of hard-hitting expose that you might be

expecting from a series that last year delivered "The Secret File on J. Edgar Hoover."

"The Heartbeat of America" is like a long, soft magazine story that might be titled "The Rise and Fall of General Motors." The most interesting thing about it is the way "Frontline" chooses to tell this tale of American decline, with an emphasis on style instead of substance. That is a major departure for this documentary series.

The style is glib, and points are scored through wisecracks rather than the kind of documentation that "Frontline's" Ofra Bikel brought to, say, "Lost Innocence," her report in July on a child molestation case in North Carolina.

The tone is set by Robert Krulwich, the reporter-narrator for "Heartbeat of America." At one point in the report, for example, viewers are shown videotape from a GM truck exhibit at an auto show. The videotape features a fire-eater used as a hawker to attract show-goers to the trucks.

"The government asked GM to voluntarily recall the trucks saying that gas tanks could catch fire if hit from the side," Krulwich says. "GM insists its trucks are safe. . . . So, the question here is, with increased consumer sensitivity to fire and safety, who hired this guy?"

Then there are the experts who Krulwich interviews, such as Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the "Car Talk" brothers of National Public Radio.

Tom Magliozzi talks about the Lumina mini-van, with its long space-age front end:

"I think a lot of people do get distracted by the front end because they don't know where they're at. But General Motors doesn't know where it's at and that doesn't hold it back," he says, breaking into laughter with his brother and Krulwich. The end result of such presentation is a report that's easy on the brain and has the aura of being in the know. But it comes up short on the usual standards of evidence. And, just because GM is not likely to evoke a lot of sympathy from viewers, that doesn't mean wisecracks can be substituted for facts.

No one is saying "Frontline" should speak with only one voice. In fact, "Frontline" deserves praise for trying to find new voices that will take its messages to larger audiences.

But it should take care not to lose credibility in the process. There's too much of the beat and not enough heart in "The Heartbeat of America."

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