Guess who’s shilling for the TSA

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Christopher Elliott

Land of Smile/Shutterstock
Land of Smile/Shutterstock

Wanna insult a reporter? There’s no easier way than accusing him or her of being a shill for the other side, of churning out propaganda instead of covering a subject.

And that’s especially true when it comes to the TSA.

But consider the following “exclusive” story from a local ABC affiliate, which aired a few weeks ago.

It was an earnest report about the imminent dangers of a terrorist weapon being detonated on a plane. Explosives “experts” at Camp Pendleton in California rigged shoes and laptop computers and blew them up in front of a group of TSA trainees. They even let a reporter incinerate one of the props from a safe distance.

It made for terrific TV and it helped the TSA make the point that it, and its $8 billion a year budget, were urgently needed to keep America safe. Such demonstrations are a staple of the TSA publicity machine.

But as is so often the case, it’s not what was said, but what was not said, that made this report the latest feather in the TSA’s PR cap.

The reporter failed to mention that TSA agents aren’t given any explosives training, so the exercise had no educational value beyond showing that plastic explosives go “boom.”

She also omitted the fact that not a single terrorist has ever tried to get a liquid bomb or plastic explosives through a TSA checkpoint. Instead, wannabe terrorists like the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber looked for vulnerabilities overseas, where the TSA has little or no jurisdiction. If you’re going to demonstrate America’s security prowess, maybe a foreign airport is a good place to start.

Put differently, the entire display was for show. The TSA could have detonated grenades, set up an archery range, even set off a small nuclear weapon — it would have been just as meaningful.

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Or meaningless.

We’re easily impressed

I can’t blame a journalist for filing that kind of piece. Few news outlets have a full-time national security reporter. Dangle an “exclusive” in front of them, maybe give them a few hours to edit the story, and they just can’t help themselves. Calling an outside expert to help put the TSA’s pyrotechnics into perspective might have been impractical.

I want to believe that.

But an outsider might have said this: TSA agents are about as capable of disarming an incendiary device as a bomb-sniffing dog. The agents watching from the bleachers are screeners, not law enforcement officials. In the sense that they’re helping air travelers through the security process, they are primarily in the customer-service business.

I would have been much more impressed if the TSA had shown a seminar with Miss Manners, in which new agents are taught how to say “please” and “thank you” instead of barking and prodding.

But I digress.

Fact is, we’re easily wowed by demonstrations like the one shown to ABC. Also, journalists tend to instinctively trust something an official tells them, whether it’s true or not.

ABC shouldn’t feel singled out. In the recent past, outlets from National Public Radio to NBC News have also filed fawning reports that do little more than help perpetuate the TSA’s “permanent emergency” and fuel public fears that help it secure more funding.

We shouldn’t be

Bias is difficult to detect. Even when you think you detect it, it’s almost impossible to prove. Reporters on deadline don’t always have time to think about the other side, and if they aren’t subject matter experts, they may not even be aware there is another side.

It’s not an excuse. In journalism school, there’s a saying: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” It’s what I like to call the Fox Mulder principle: Trust no one. It’s one of the most difficult lessons to learn when you’re a reporter, particularly when your sources seem to be so trustworthy.

Be critical, even when it will cause some to question your patriotism. Especially then.

I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased. I’m on the side of the consumer, and travelers are not well served when the TSA trumps up false threats or exaggerates its role in keeping America’s transportation systems safe.

In the meantime, maybe the best advice I can give is this: don’t believe everything you read.

Is the American press biased toward the TSA?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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