Why are there so many TSA puff stories?

by Bill Fisher on December 17, 2012


On any given day there will usually be several articles about the TSA in the media. This is typically a mix of stories on yet another arrested TSA screener or press releases fed to lazy reporters by the TSA announcing that they found a lighter in the shape of a hand grenade and protected America from secondhand smoke.

Often these press releases announce that the loathsome Precheck program has processed 3 million travelers for six months and then will change the number to 4 million and run that story another six months later on any site that will take it. Of course these stories don’t mention that while Precheck added another 1 million passengers, over 300 million people passed through checkpoints. So Precheck can hardly be said to be making us safer.

If a particularly negative story goes viral, such as the search of a dying woman, a few days later there will be a large number of favorable stories about the TSA finding turtles or fish in checked baggage or how wonderful TSA screeners are for doing something that thousands of other people would do without any notoriety, such as stopping to help victims of a car accident.

The TSA even resorted to using dogs to try to improve their image, releasing details on fluffy puppies being raised to sniff for explosives and naming dogs after victims of 9/11, an act that would be considered offensive to families in many cultures. The puppy program was abandoned after criticism that its $1.4 million appropriation was wasteful and that puppies were readily available not only from other agencies but also from the ASPCA and local animal shelters.

The TSA even goes so far as to creates its own good press by sending spare TSA agents across the country to support DHS’s other dysfunctional stepchild, FEMA, in relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy. This was done at taxpayer expense and was likely more costly and less effective than using nearby professionals with appropriate skills.

To the casual reader these may just seem like the typical public service announcements that media outlets perform for public agencies and charitable organizations. For the most part, those announcements are informative and usually devoid of any hidden agenda.

In the case of the TSA, these announcements are placed for another purpose: to offset the agency’s plummeting public approval rating and to provide cover in Congressional hearings. In his first appearance before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security in August, newly appointed (and clearly inexperienced) TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski was questioned by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) about his agency’s poor reputation.

Rogers remarked that TSA’s reputation remains poor and that the public generally criticizes the agency when it is discussed. Halinski responded that in 2009, the TSA analyzed media reports of its effectiveness. Of 13,000 reports, 47% were negative. Of 5,000 blogs examined, 80% of them contained negative comments on the TSA. The 2010 through 2012 numbers, after the scanners and invasive searches were implemented, were either not collected or have not yet been released. The fact that Halinski cited three-year-old data may hint that any newer data are indeed far worse.

Halinski said the agency has actively responded to legitimate criticism raised in these reports, but that many of the blogs might contain negative comments of a general nature or are based on unsubstantiated claims without identifying the specific problem or identity of the person making the complaint.

In testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation on November 29, 2012, Charles Leocha, Director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, offered an assessment of the TSA’s reputation in the media and blogosphere:

The litany of negative stories about TSA is constant. Newspaper editors with whom I have discussed TSA actions all report a vitriolic reaction to stories about TSA. Comments on blogs and letters to the editors go off the charts. The level of citizen frustration is palpable. When security checks are so inconsistent, TSA appears to be a sinister version of Keystone Cops.

Leocha’s statement is supported by a September survey of frequent fliers in which 76% of respondents found the TSA ineffective or not very effective.

So as we enter a third year of invasive TSA screening and a continual stream of reports about TSA abuses and thefts, we can also expect an endless supply of misinformation by bureaucrats who plant stories to pump up media metrics solely in the interest of securing funding for their misguided, abusive, and wasteful agency.

(Photo: rosmary/Flickr Creative Commons)

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