Guess who’s shilling for the TSA

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.

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

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  • Jeff Kolker

    Wish I knew how to answer the question. Not sure it is as simple as “yes” or “no” Some yes…some no… depends on where you look. And people tend to believe what they want, and listen to those to tell them what they want to hear…

  • Grant

    For future reference… when you ask for free publicity from a website, it might be a good idea to spell the host’s name correctly.

  • chickadee

    Or call him by the right name…most people say ‘Chris.’

  • friv3

    Advertising is the best way now to tell us more about it. thank you

  • TonyA_says

    Your site seems to be collecting only emails and names. Is there anything else going on there?

  • TonyA_says

    There’s a guy (a popular speaker and blogger) from Kingston, NY named Gerald Celente who calls these folks presstitutes.

  • cjr001

    One only has to look back at National Opt Out Day and how the media handled that one – and continues to refer to it (as a failure) – to see how obvious the bias is. Occasionally somebody steps forth with an independent thought, but that should be the standard, not the exception.

    The media here also tends to have no idea what an “exclusive” is any more, either.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Great sniglet.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    I believe that many reporters now are just not doing full research on validating both sides of a story, when the story is an opinion or the story is about the subject’s point of view.

    The TSA is trying to show that explosives might be dangerous. Ok, we get that. However, the story didn’t show the associated risks concerning suicidal airline passengers with working non-metallic bombs. They could have done some research or tracked down experts to learn that on US domestic flights, no one has caused even one fatality for over 50 years.

    This includes the 11 months of “threat” after the failed, unworkable bombing attempt by the underwear bomber who was denied a visa by our State dept, but then was granted one after a request by one of our intelligence agencies.

    They could have pointed out the TSA procedures force many people to drive – well, those who care about the Constitution or who don’t want the hassle – and this increased mileage statistically leads to driving deaths every year as published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

    Fear sells (that is why they cover crime more than ‘feel good’ stories), and many in the larger media continue to practice shoddy research and do little, real investigative reporting on subjects like the TSA. Or anything else for that matter.

  • Saul B

    Too bad the “reporter” didn’t mention how the TSA’s checkpoint procedures tend to lengthen the checkpoint queues, and often pack more unscreened passengers waiting on line closer together than on many actual planes.

    Several of these simultaneous booms detonated at checkpoints at major airports around the country would bring American aviation to a standstill, and absolutely nothing the TSA does at the checkpoints would stop it.

  • MeanMeosh

    I think the great poet Don Henley summed it up best:

    “We can do the innuendo, we can dance and sing,
    When it’s said and done, we haven’t told you a thing.
    We all know that crap is king, give us dirty laundry!”

  • JenniferFinger

    Some news organizations may be biased towards the TSA, but I don’t think that’s true of the industry as a while. This site and several others certainly indicate otherwise!

  • TSAisTerrorism

    I thought snark wasn’t allowed?

  • ATL frequent flyer

    Fear sells! It brings in viewers and readers. It’s the sad state of journalism today. The “Fourth Estate” is essentially a brain dead entity driven ever further into its coma due to continued media consolidation and a drive to cut costs in a desperate drive to show profits for Wall Street. The publicity “machines”, which includes countless corporations and government agencies, not just the TSA, produce already packaged “news” stories. These Video News Releases (VNRs) tout the latest product trends, and life-saving practices (i.e., “medical advances in prescriptions and surgical techniques) to “look how the TSA is protecting you” and other PR campaigns. These VNRs are then shipped to every media outlet across the country. In the desperate need to fill a 24-hour news cycle, skeletal staffs (i.e., unpaid interns) at news outlets turn to these “news stories” all too often simply to fill the air time.

  • TonyA_says
  • TSAisTerrorism

    The OP’s a troll, Grant’s a moderator and should know better than to snark since he is all too quick to call it out… Just sayin’ what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Too bad the moderators around here consider themselves above reproach.

  • TonyA_says

    I hope you don’t expect moderators to be perfect.
    It takes quite a lot of googling to check AND CONFIRM if a poster is a troll.
    Since the mods are not paid, maybe some understanding on our part is necessary.
    Thank you.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Are you serious?

    I don’t expect moderators to be perfect. I moderate at other sites, and I KNOW how difficult it is.

    Grant is one of the biggest offenders of “This is not OK to say, unless you support TSA, then flame on. But no snark.”

    And then the snark.

    And what does all of the googling and checking and confirming do to get in the way of not being a snark anyway? A little understanding? OH, I understand perfectly well that A). OP may or may not be a troll, B) mods are furiously clacking away on the googles trying to determine if said OP troll is a troll, C). regardless Grant, a moderator who proclaims “no snark!” is there front and center with the snark.

    Are you SoBe Sparky in drag creating straw men and nonexistent alternate universes so you can heroically knock them all down?

    Get a clue, TonyA.

  • TonyA_says

    I think you need to chill out a bit. I know it’s Wednesday, bash the TSA day, but I nor Grant nor Sparky are TSA agents or avid supporters of the TSA :-)

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Dude, you could chill out a bit, too.

    The comment you are responding to is in regards to Grant’s snark, which is verboten on this site, and which has not been called out. At.All. Which is interesting since A) Grant is a mod and B) Grant is a mod who is the first to admonish snark when it is made by anti-TSA people on Wednesday. And nowhere else. Particularly when Grant the mod is making the snark.

    Why do you care so much, anyway?

    The OP being a troll is irrelevant.

  • Christopher Elliott

    FYI, I love snark. Trolls? Not so much.

  • TonyA_says

    Is Congressman Mica serious in Dismantling the TSA?
    Bloomberg has decent article here

  • Christopher Elliott

    I saw that too. I live in Mica’s district …

  • TonyA_says
  • Yepi Friv

    These Video News Releases (VNRs) tout the latest product trends, and life-saving practices (i.e., “medical advances in prescriptions and surgical techniques) to “look how the TSA is protecting you” and other PR campaigns.

  • Y8

    It’s an honor to read high quality content these days.

  • Y8

    This is extremely interesting information.