Look who’s shilling for the TSA

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 principal: 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.

  • nveric

    It’s the job of government to justify their existence, either rightly or silly.

    Has anyone suggested unscreened flights filled with risk takers only? and let the scared and cowed fly after their groping session in a separate flight?

    • Yes, nveric, plenty of us have been suggesting that for years. Ain’t gonna happen.

      • nveric

        So, how can this annoying air travel issue be made more annoying?

        While I’m not being annoying on purpose, making the situation worse can and most likely bring in more people in opposition. I can think of innocent actions to slow the process down. And, demanding even more security checks will certainly slow it down while costing more money.

        Will demanding more security be an act of terrorism? Yes, I can see how such could be reasoned by people in government.

        • nveric, again, read the link I posted yesterday about the various ways we can resist. One of them is slowing down the process at the checkpoint.

          • nveric

            Pissed off people are what’s needed. I’ve been on the Internet most every day this past year and a half because I’m more than pissed at government people not following their directions.

            I was somewhat happy and content until 2008, when insistence on my continuing education was interrupted by State of Nevada employees not following their laws. Between 2008 and 2011, I became much more aware of the greater issues causing harm to me and the country.

            While being in a rural Nevada county is rather peaceful and serene, I could continue on this way and not care.

            However, I find no comfort in other people’s sufferings. As this itself marks me in a minority, those who see no value in revenge, retribution, or punishment, my task is that more difficult.

            I advocate Nonviolence, not Pacifism. Violence is the enemy, while self-defense is a legitimate tool. The line between them is very solid in me.

          • nveric, agreed. Agreed to all. But passengers are pissed off at the wrong people — at us, the activists, the resisters, the people slowing down the line — when they should be pissed off at the TSA, at the government. It was the same during the civil rights movement. It’s the same in every social justice movement. Until more people direct their anger at their oppressors and not at those fighting their oppressors, nothing will change.

          • nveric

            Protest for more security?

            Petition air travelers for more security measures. If they say there’s enough, then ask them to join in for less security.

            One issue I’ve found not to interest more than .01% of the audience I’ve contacted is the issue of lack of representation in the House. It was frozen in 1929. People complain their representatives don’t listen, and it’s because they can’t bother with the People they represent. This issue is guaranteed to draw silence even when it’s fully explained. See http://www.thirty-thousand.org/ What does it have to do with TSA? Nothing and everything. I’ll let you decide and reason, but I’ll mention one more item related to these larger concepts. Over 2/3 of people have no interest or no ability to grasp these concepts which aren’t readily understood. Source: “Do What You Are” 3rd Edition, Tieger, Barron-Tieger.

        • Susan Richart

          Nveric, we have a saying “one grope at a time.” People who have been supporters of the TSA tend to change their tune after they are groped.

          I’ve always been in favor of the TSA spreading its poison to subway systems/trains because doing so would expose more people to their unlawful actions.

          There are far more people who oppose the TSA than we realize, but for unknown reasons, they don’t tend to speak out.

  • Correct Facts

    It is very interesting that you write about Journalistic bias. As for as I can tell this entire site is not just leaning but pinned to one side of the issue. Even if there was some truth to what you have to say I will not believe you because you are obviously blinded by your mistrust. I will however heed your advice and not believe everything I read. Good day.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      Hi, TSA Troll!

      Don’t you have a small child’s pants to stick your hands in for safety and Freedom!? Or perhaps a geriatric needs to be disrobed?

      You’re a traitor. Go walk off a short pier. For safety, of course.

    • Susan Richart

      “Good day.”

      Does that mean you’re gone for good?

      If he returns folks, just ignore him.

      • Daisiemae

        That’s the best thing to do. Ignore arrogant fools and they seek another stage where they can strut and preen.

        • TSAisTerrorism

          But this one is so bunched up it is downright hilarious to get her knickers in a knot! I am seriously LOL at the responses. They’re priceless!

          • Daisiemae

            As always, I enjoy reading your comments. You can run rings around any strutting fool.

          • TSAisTerrorism

            Aww, you’re too kind.

            TY. TYVM.

  • Correct Facts

    TSA agents aren’t given any explosives training, so the exercise had no educational value beyond showing that plastic explosives go “boom.” This is a False statement. Check your facts Mr. Elliot.

    • Susan Richart

      They are shown pictures and videos. That’s the extent of their “explosives” training. No field trips.

  • 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.

  • Susan Richart

    Wasn’t it ABC that did the expose a couple of months ago? Could this have been an attempt to offset that and thumb the TSA’s nose at ABC?

    Has anybody contacted the reporter, Eileen Frere, to tell her that she’d been had? Anybody have an e-mail address for her?

    • Susan, which exposé?

      • Susan Richart

        IIRC, it was about theft by TSA screeners at several airports.

        • Chris Bray

          I remember that one — it was great. The reporter showed up at the door of the TSA officer who stole his iPad and showed him the GPS tracking app on his iPhone, which showed that the iPad was in the house. The TSA officer sheepishly went inside and got it.


          The compooter haz uh-larm? What is compooter alarm?

          • TSAisTerrorism

            AFTER he blamed his wife.

            Class act right there.