3 TSA headlines you thought you’d never see

Don't go there. / Photo by Maxy Media - Flickr

Guess what? The TSA’s controversial full-body scanners are safe, after all.

The agency is working hard to repair its tarnished image, too. Not that it needs to; a vast majority of Americans are happy with airport security.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these headlines — which appeared in the nation’s newspapers last week — prove the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems had turned a corner, that it finally got it.

But you probably know better.

Satisfaction with airport security increases

That’s the headline on a news release sent out by Travel Leaders Group last week — one of hundreds of surveys designed to get the news media’s attention during the busy summer travel season.

And this one definitely served its purpose, getting pickups in a wide variety of news outlets. The survey claimed two-thirds of U.S. travelers are “satisfied” with the level of security at airports, up 6 percent from last year. Only 17 percent indicate they are “unsatisfied.”

“The vast majority of American air traveler have adapted to today’s airport security measures and, despite any perceived inconveniences, understand that the safety and well-being of all airline passengers is paramount,” Travel Leaders CEO Barry Liben said in a prepared statement.

Ahem. The vast majority?

The truth: Have a look at the survey’s methodology. The travel agency polled 855 people, which it contacted through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, and through its own travel clients. In other words, it asked a small sample of experienced travelers for their opinion about airport security.

What these numbers actually say is that a handful of tech-savvy air travelers have figured out how to deal with the TSA’s security hassles. But not a “vast” majority. Not even close. Even assuming Travel Leaders’ survey said what it claims — that 66 percent of Americans were “satisfied” — that’s hardly an endorsement. (Every student knows a 66 percent is a “D.”)

TSA scanners pose negligible risk to passengers, new test shows

You might have read that headline in the Los Angeles Times. The story quoted an unpublished Marquette University College of Engineering study that concluded full-body scanners used for security screening at the nation’s airports do not expose passengers to dangerous levels of radiation. It said the controversial backscatter scanners emit radiation levels are considerably lower than those of other X-ray procedures such as mammograms.

But wait. As my colleagues at TSA News pointed out, the study didn’t test an actual scanner, ignored an entire class of scanner, and didn’t answer the fundamental question of whether the scanners were safe.

In a follow-up email sent to me, the study’s author, Taly Gilat-Schmidt, said the LA Times “did not accurately represent my statements about our research.”

“I was very clear with the reporter that I could not draw any conclusions about risk from my work,” the professor added. “But of course, a quote was taken out of context and turned into a very misleading headline.”

Here’s the full rebuttal.

As a journalist, I know it can sometimes be a challenge to distill complicated research into a story or headline. It’s too bad this one will be used by TSA apologists for what TSA News calls “propaganda” purposes. (Scroll to the bottom of this story if you want to sound off on whether TSA is winning the propaganda war.)

The truth: No one really knows how safe — or unsafe — the scanners are. An independent test of an actual scanner might be helpful.

TSA says it’s working to improve poor reputation

Never mind the fact that this headline contradicts the first item in this commentary. (I mean, either the agency has an image problem, or it doesn’t.) Or that, come to think of it, the headline sort of contradicts the story. It was published by the Associated Press and picked up by virtually every major American newspaper and news site, and the headline was virtually identical no matter where it appeared.

The story was a pretty straightforward report about a congressional hearing in which TSA Administrator John Pistole talked about the steps the agency is taking to improve screening.

As far as I can tell, Pistole never admitted his agency had a “poor” reputation or that he was working on improving it. In fact, the agency would disagree that it has an awful reputation because its detractors say it is in denial.

The truth: The only thing the TSA is working hard to do (and with some success) is ensuring the survival of the agency, growing its already formidable bureaucracy, and stonewalling most of its critics. But a story to that effect wouldn’t have really gotten the traction that this one did.

Covering the TSA isn’t easy. I know. I’ve following the agency since its inception more than 10 years ago. Editors and reporters are curiously ambivalent about the agency. They want to be seen as watchdogs, not lapdogs, but they also don’t want to be thought of as unpatriotic. Also, the agency works in mysterious ways that even insiders have some trouble understanding, let alone explaining. I get it.

But these headlines — and in some cases, the stories — take us in the wrong direction. They mislead the public about a deeply troubled agency.

We can do better.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Asiansm Dan

    Easy to make an U-turn: Change the name, change the uniform, Implant the continuing improvements processus at every level beginning by the upper management layer. There are plenty of consultant firms are ready to help and they are experts on that.

  • backprop

    “It said the controversial backscatter scanners emit radiation levels
    are considerably lower than those of other X-ray procedures such as

    How many people get three mammograms in one day? 

    This is like those hucksters on TV saying that a particular space heater uses “less electricity than a coffee maker!”  Well, yea, but what coffeemaker brews coffee 12 hours a day?

    Giving the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that one backscatter scan gives 80% less radiation than a chest X-ray. Most people don’t get a single chest X-ray in a year. It only take 5 scans, about an average of one trip with connections, to get that chest X-ray. Woe to any frequent traveler who accumulates all that radiation in a year.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Well, the current administration has to make good on their promise of “green” and “shovel ready” jobs. Since “bus driver” now qualifies as a “green” job, I guess being a TSA agent is “green” as well. After all, no fossil fuels are involved with searching random people, stealing things from luggage and yelling at the masses.

    I never received a word back from the TSA on my question about why children were directed around the pornoscanner and pregnant women were not. 

    Off Topic:
    Any word from Alaska on the broken wheelchair to Hawaii case? 

  • User921394932

    No amount of radiation is a safe amount.  There was a time when doctors claimed smoking was beneficial to your health.

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Thanks for writing this !  

  • TravelingSalesman

    As long as we continue to elect people who are more concerned with their own agendas than  they are with our actual safety, we will have bureaucracies like TSA.   They get a tiny foothold inspecting what and who travels by air and very soon we have searches on buses and ferries. Searches “on public streets” of individuals, at random, have been done by TSA.  How far are we going to let them go?
    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Ben Franklin –

  • jsteele98

    The TSA MAY be safe for your body but they are a death sentence for your Constitutional rights. 

  • cjr001

    I voted yes. Why? Because it’s the only war TSA looks like they’re able to win. Propaganda works on ignorance, and, unfortunately, the average American has it in spades.

    Go to all of these news sites when there’s a TSA story, and you’ll find far too many people (including here on Christopher’s site) who are more than willing to swallow the absurd notion of “safety at all costs” hook, line, and sinker. And if they don’t use that one, they’ll try and throw “don’t like it, don’t fly” in your face.

    They’ve never witnessed anything themselves (although, more likely they simply covered their eyes and ears), and they truly believe that the Terrorist Boogieman will jump out of a plane’s shadow and blow them up.

    In short, TSA has managed to survive this long because they have the propaganda of the War on Terror to keep them alive. And that’s propaganda that won’t be going away anytime soon.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Seems the only people in the country with job security are the spin doctors who work for TSA.  So long as there’s BS to shovel (making it a “shovel ready” job, rather than “green”) so will the TSA Spin Doctors heap it on the garden.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    There’s been some back-and-forth between the OP and me on this, but Alaska is not changing its position. I will update the post when anything changes. I’m fairly sure it’s Alaska’s final answer, though.

  • Extraneededmail

    We have been sliding down that slippery slope for a long time!

  • ClareClare

    You’re right, kind of like how the Soviets–er, Russians–shut down the KGB and now have the FSB instead.  Same personnel, same chain of command, same authority… but different initials, so I guess that makes it okay now!  You’ll actually come across Russians who claim, gravely and earnestly, that they’ve abolished the KGB, which is a huge sign of improvement.  They all work for the government, of course…

  • frostysnowman

    It’s interesting you theorize that reporters and editors don’t want to be seen as “unpatriotic”, and so they are ambivilent about reporting on the TSA.   I’m glad you are at least trying, Chris. No one else in the media seems to care that the TSA is itself unpatriotic, with its continual violations of our constitutional rights in the name of security. 

  • frostysnowman

    The TSA directs pregnant women to the pornoscanners because they think they could be hiding things in false bellies.  Which is of course completely ridiculous.  But I was once traveling while pregnant BEFORE the scanners and pat-downs were in place, about six years ago, and I was pulled aside with a bunch of other pregnant ladies for a pat down.  I got very upset about the idea of them touching me, and there wasn’t any place to have a private pat-down back then.  Not that that would have made things better, but you know what I mean.  When I questioned the reason behind the special treatment, the TSA guy said, in the snottiest voice you can imagine, that he guessed I hadn’t heard about the two women in Russia who had tried to smuggle bombs on to a plane in fake bellies.  So myself and the three or four other women pulled aside were paying the price for it in ATL. And that’s what I base my theory on.

  • cybersal

    I voted no, but had I voted yes, it would have been tongue in cheek because so many lemmings don’t even question. Hey, if 66% are travel savvy I don’t want to appear stupid, so I’m confident TSA is A-OK.

  • Nigel Appleby

    Perhaps I’m more cynical than most but I expected these and similar headlines generated by the TSA’s spin doctors before now. So I smile nicely when I go through security and keep my thoughts for another venue.

  • Alan Gore

    If this were true, then the entire human race would have been dead of background radiation millennia ago. Political talking points are not actually science.

  • Miami510

    I take issue with John Steele’s remarks:

    “The TSA MAY be safe for your body but they are a death sentence for your Constitutional rights.”

    There is no constitutional guarantee to fly and even a conservative viewpoint is that a proper role for government is to do for citizens what they are unable to do for themselves.  Airplane travel security is
    a proper role for government.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DTPY6UBX6RXY3KYI2TAIDYLC2A Net Crawl

    We are still talking about Backscatter screening machines. Why??? In fact, many of the airports are now, and have been for some time, using millimeter wave technology that is safe. Radio waves and deploys about as much energy as 1/10,000th of a cell phone call. Again, why are we still talking about Backscatter radiation machines? Maybe because its the only machine we can still complain about! Get over it people.

  • OldUncleDave

    It won’t take many more years before anyone who remembers freedom in the USA is dead, and for those remaining, the police state will be normal and accepted.  “It’s always been like this.” 

  • Cybrsk8r

    Actually, Tupac is correct.  There is no “safe” dose of radiation.  It is simply a matter of increasing risk.  Background radiation is not safe, but since it’s unavoidable, we live with the risk.

  • MarkieA

    I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I believe that most folks here would not question your last sentence. However, it’s the WAY they do it that rubs folks the wrong way. 

  • jet2x2

    I voted yes because I think they are winning the propaganda war among the general public.  The propaganda message they push at every turn is that their methods may not be the greatest but we need to go along with them to be safe, and anyone who complains is either a terrorist, unpatriotic, or both.  Experienced travelers – the majority of those who comment and vote here – are not so easily fooled.    

  • http://twitter.com/kdtalcott kdtalcott

    The professor responsible for the backscatter analysis disagrees with the LA Times report: 

    “I would like to say that the LA Times did not accurately represent my statements about our research. I was very clear with the reporter that I could not draw any conclusions about risk from my work. But of course, a quote was taken out of context and turned into a very misleading headline.”

  • jebaker

    Yes, we are still talking about backscatter machines because they remain in many of our airports.  I am a frequent traveller who lives in Chicago, so they exist here and many of the other airports I travel to.  Chicago is NOT replacing them, so the same issue applies.  As a cancer survivor, it really concerns me (I do a pat down per my Dr. orders) to see everyone breeze through them assuming that all is well.

  • cjr001

    MMW may be safe, but the false-negatives are 50% or more.

    Not to mention, to use one of the machines, you have to stand there with your hands above your head. A classic submission pose.

  • Asiansm Dan

     Perception. TSA belong to the 911 era. We are 10 years passed. It’s time to turn the page and restart with a new image. TSA had adopt  desuetude image and management method of the pass, why hanging on it. Obama or any president must profit the next president term inauguration to push on the reboot button.

  • pauletteb

    The “vast majority” of the anti-TSA bloggers here are the same people, posting their vitriol again and again, using the same language again and again. Yes, some travelers experience problems with TSA. Yes, some travelers experience outright abuse by TSA. But, yes, the “vast majority” of us get through the lines with nary a hassle. If you approach a TSA worker with attitude, that’s exactly what you’ll get back.

  • pauletteb