Bashing the feds over the handling of natural disasters and terror threats is a popular media sport. We all snickered when it was reported that the federal government considered a petting zoo and an Amish popcorn factory to be targets for terrorists. Now we have learned that the media got that story wrong, too.
When it was first reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) spending priorities meant less money for New York and Washington, and more for places like Nebraska and Wisconsin, the media and a lot of politicians roared with contempt. When DHS responded that the new figures represented a combination of the smaller amount appropriated by Congress, the quality of the applications by the various locales, risk assessments and the fact that places like New York and Washington had been front-loaded with infrastructure in the previous years of the program, it made little difference. The editorial decision had been made to discredit DHS.
The contempt became ridicule when in early July a DHS Inspector General’s report was made public that described a “critical targets” list that included a petting zoo in Alabama, a Mule Day parade in Tennessee, and an Amish popcorn factory in Indiana as critical infrastructure that DHS planned to protect. At the same time, according to early reports, such icons as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge were left off the list. This was considered by the media to be the second DHS misstep in just two months. The Bush Administration was on the defensive.
The Washington Post reported that the DHS list had grown to more 77,000 targets, including “bean festivals, car dealerships, small-town parades and check-cashing stores.” The media and the late-night talk shows had a field day.
Deep in the story, however, the Post had a comment from Robert Stephan, the assistant DHS secretary for infrastructure protection, who said that the 77,000-item database is “only as an information source for more refined analyses of critical targets.” This put the controversy in a very different perspective.
Stephan had more to say on the subject and he wrote a guest column for USA Today the following week. In it he explained that they had sought input from local, state and federal officials, and that the list of 77,000 represented a “phonebook” of items from around the country which was then narrowed down to a classified list of some 600 potential targets nationwide. They included the leading financial centers, nuclear power plants, major seaports and airports, dams and petrochemical plants.
Stephan, a retired Air Force colonel, criticized the DHS inspector general for not having interviewed him for the report, and having “missed the purpose of the database entirely…[he] focused on raw, unfiltered data to create national hype. That’s akin to looking at what’s left on the cutting room floor rather than at the movie, then giving it a half-star rating.”
He added, “That does a huge disservice to the department’s dedicated men and women and to the American people, whom they have served so ably for the past three years.”
The media thought they had another story of federal incompetence. But what we have discovered is that it’s really a case of media incompetence. The media did not take the time to look into the real facts. They wanted a quick laugh at the expense of federal officials who were doing their jobs. But journalists became the joke.