11.22.10

The Media's Pat-Down Frenzy

The press has taken a few revolting TSA passenger encounters and blown the story wildly out of proportion. Howard Kurtz on the making of a "junk" journalism epidemic.

You might get the impression, from the way the coverage has achieved warp speed, that millions of airline passengers are being groped and humiliated by heavy-handed security guards.

From network newscasts to local TV, from newspaper front pages to a blur of Web headlines, it seems untold numbers of women are having their breasts touched and untold numbers of men are feeling the intrusive hands of government guards near their packages.

Actually, that’s far from true. Despite some outrageous incidents involving idiotic conduct, with 2 million passengers screened each day, more than 99 percent are unaffected by the new policy.

“Very few people actually get the pat-down at all,” John Pistole, who runs the Transportation Security Administration, told me. “I don’t know what the impression is” from all the media scrutiny, he says, “but it’s a very, very small number.”

First, the only people subjected to pat-downs are those who opt out of the new full-body scanners or set off the alarm (which can be triggered by having anything in your pockets, not just metal). Second, these scanners are in use at just 70 of the country’s 453 airports, although more are being rolled out next year.

And yet after a full week of journalistic flogging, the story again led the three network morning shows and network newscasts today, with Pistole dragging himself from one program to the next for the ritual hazing. It was on the front page of The New York Times. It has gotten the Saturday Night Live treatment, a promo with leering TSA guards promising a sexy experience.

So how did this story streak into the media stratosphere?

We all identify with bedraggled passengers, having removed their shoes and belts, having dumped their drinks and packed their tiny toothpaste tubes, being oppressed by a rigid and inflexible system. But that doesn’t mean the excesses are widespread.

While many of the full-body scanners were rolled out November 1, the more stringent policy wasn’t announced under a why-alert-al-Qaeda approach. But on November 13, software engineer John Tyner posted a video on his obscure blog in which he told a guard at the San Diego airport, “If you touch my junk I’ll have you arrested.” The Drudge Report posted a link, the tape went viral and Pistole found himself being questioned about the case on CNN. His words had a crude elegance, a cross between a country western lament and a battle cry for the 21st century.

The narrative combines a number of elements: Hassled airline passengers (who can’t relate to that?); terrorism concerns; invasion of privacy, and a hint of sexual naughtiness. But the key here is that every local news outlet in America could send a reporter or a crew to a nearby airport and grab a piece of the action.

To be sure, they found a few revolting cases. On Charlotte’s WBTV, breast cancer survivor Cathi Bossi said a guard “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’  And I said, ‘It's my prosthesis because I've had breast cancer.' And she said, ‘Well, you'll need to show me that.’” Some terrorist threat.

Sacramento’s KXTV quoted Wendy James Gigliotta, who was wearing a loose-fitting dress, as saying: "I feel like I was sexually assaulted. Anybody but my husband or my doctor shouldn't be touching me up between my legs.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reported on cell-phone video of agents patting down a shirtless 8-year-old boy (his father had removed the shirt).

MSNBC found bladder cancer survivor Thomas Sawyer, who was wearing a urostomy bag at the Orlando airport when a guard searched him: “I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants. They never apologized.”

The obtuseness of these TSA clowns boggles the mind. And in the modern media world, anecdotal accounts rule. Perhaps some customers, not the disabled ones, were being oversensitive; doesn’t matter. We all identify with bedraggled passengers, having removed their shoes and belts, having dumped their drinks and packed their tiny toothpaste tubes, being oppressed by a rigid and inflexible system. But that doesn’t mean the excesses are widespread.

“I don’t mean to be minimizing how people are feeling about it. It’s a significant issue,” says Pistole, who stiffly sticks to his talking points and keeps turning the conversation to terrorism. The only ground he would cede is that “we haven’t done a good enough job educating people.” Even when news organizations, straining for a new lead, reported Sunday that the TSA was softening its policy, all Pistole had said was that the approach “will be adapted as conditions warrant.”

Still, the controversy is perfect fodder in the holiday travel season. NBC Nightly News did four stories last week; the CBS Evening News did five. “Tonight, growing turbulence over security screening,” Katie Couric said in a typical lead.

And the hyperbole keeps rising. “TSA Backlash Reaches Epic New Heights,” the Atlantic declared. “Frustration Over Airport Pat-Downs Boils Over,” an MSNBC headline announced. The media are clearly in fan-the-flames mode.

“Prepare for a travel nightmare if you're getting on a plane to go see your family for Thanksgiving next week,” said Juan Williams, filling in on The O’Reilly Factor. “Twenty-four million Americans will go through a living hell just because they want to visit their loved ones!” But aside from the crowds and inevitable delays, nearly all of those 24 million Americans won’t go through any more hell than they did last Thanksgiving.

When a story achieves that kind of velocity, everyone wants to jump in. Members of Congress demand investigations. Cabinet members are asked about it in television interviews. On Face the Nation Sunday, Bob Schieffer asked Hillary Clinton if she would submit to an airport pat-down. “Not if I could avoid it,” she said. “I mean, who would?”

Whether all this scanning and probing and patting down is enhancing our collective security is very much in doubt. Pistole repeatedly points to the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and who among us wouldn’t submit to additional inconvenience if it meant stopping an extremist from bringing down a plane? A CBS poll earlier this month found that 81 percent of those questioned support the TSA’s use of full-body scanners.

But an ABC/Washington Post survey out Monday says half the respondents think the new pat-down techniques go too far. (After the overwhelmingly hostile coverage, it's surprising that figure is only 50 percent.)

On the other hand, it seems absurd to be screening grandmothers and young kids, and has this elaborate and expensive enterprise caught a single terrorist?

No self-respecting man wants a hyperactive security guard touching his junk. But I’ve about had it with media types who insist on turning this into a junk story.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.