Stories I’d like to see

Behind a legislative triumph, Mandela memorial security, and a question for Politico

In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Behind a legislative triumph:

According to this article in the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill, the House is poised this week to pass legislation that relates to three controversial issues: the federal budget, airport security, and funds for the military. Yet the bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 43 House members.

Does this bipartisan breakthrough signal an end to Washington gridlock? Hardly. In fact, the bill seems more like it was drafted by Saturday Night Live scriptwriters looking for a new way to make fun of Congress.

The law, spearheaded by Republican Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida, doesn’t amount to much more than loose change. Literally.

The “TSA Loose Change Act,” or HR 1095, would require the Transportation Security Administration to gather and store all of the money that people leave behind at security checkpoints before going through metal detectors, and use it to fund special airport lounges for the military.

Until now, the TSA’s rules dictated that the forgotten pocket change was supposed to be used to enhance aviation security. However, according the Hill, the House Committee on Homeland Security has discovered that TSA has been slow to spend it, a lapse that Congressman Miller and his 43 co-sponsors are determined to rectify.

Redirecting the money to a new program to aid our men and women in uniform seems to make sense — until you do the math.

Americans are not exactly throwing a fortune away at the checkpoints. The Committee on Homeland Security found that about $800,000 is left behind at TSA checkpoints every year. With about 800 million passengers going through approximately 2,000 airport security checkpoints every year, this would mean that one penny is left behind for every 10 passengers. Or, that 100 passengers collectively will leave a dime behind.

It would also mean that the average checkpoint collects about $1.09 per day. (That’s $800,000 divided by 2,000 checkpoints, divided by 365 days.)

So, I yearn for some reporter to go figure out what it would cost the folks at TSA to secure that $1.09 from every checkpoint every day, account for it, then gather it from across the country. Is there any chance that when those costs are added up there will be anything left for a new lounge or even a new chair in any airport?

Who says Congress still can’t come together and do great things?

2. Mandela memorial security:

The two major memorial services in South Africa for Nelson Mandela (one scheduled for today, the other for December 19) seem likely to present unprecedented challenges for security officials charged with protecting dozens of world leaders, including President Obama.

Potential terrorists or others seeking to harm the attendees now have advance notice of the date, time and location of the gatherings, yet there has not been nearly enough time for security officials to do the kind of planning that these types of events require. Add that to the mix of armed security guards each country’s leader will bring with him or her, plus the fact that both events are likely to attract audiences of tens or even hundreds of thousands of members of the public eager to pay their respects, and it seems that you have a perfect storm of security risks.

After the services have been concluded (without incident, one hopes and assumes), it would be fascinating to read about how all that security for all those protectees was coordinated. For example, assuming each dignitary’s security people are armed, who screened them? How did the security people from one country know that their armed counterparts from elsewhere hovering at the scene were legit?

How did the US Secret Service deal with these issues? How much say did they have in the security arrangements at each venue?

Did the US or another country, such as Israel, lend any security equipment to the South Africans?

Did anyone arbitrate disagreements among the security teams, or did the South Africans call all the shots?

3. Ask Politico this:

This post on (disclosure: I contribute to the magazine) seems to have nailed the new magazine being published by Politico for making a glaring mistake.

As Time reports, “A column in Politico magazine today makes the astonishing claim that President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had just one in-person meeting at the White House between March 23, 2010, the day the Affordable Care Act was signed, and Nov. 30, 2013.”

According to Time, the Politico columnist — Peter Schweizer, who used to work for Sarah Palin — simply checked White House visitor logs and the president’s publicly released schedules, not knowing that Cabinet members who routinely see the president are not typically signed in at the White House security gate, nor are their meetings necessarily entered in the president’s officially released calendar. Secretary Sebelius has met with the president “dozens” of times in just the last year, a Sebelius spokesperson told Time.

Based on my own reporting, I think Time’s version of the Obama-Sebelius encounters is true. But that doesn’t matter. Either way, that’s not the end of the issue for Politico (which subsequently did post the White House’s strong denial of the story on its news pages).

The question media reporters should be asking Politico is why Schweizer didn’t go to the White House spokespeople for comment — and report their adamant denial — before publishing his story. It would seem that Politico’s only argument would be that Schweizer is a “columnist” and that he writes an opinion column. But here his opinion was based on a fact that he supposedly uncovered after laborious legwork, which he then used to lay out his larger theme — an indictment of Obama’s “loner style.”

So, is Politico’s standard for “columns” in its new magazine really to “write first, ask later”?

If the Washington Post had published a column like this, Politico’s terrific media reporter, Dylan Byers, would have been all over it. It will be interesting to see if he tackles something this close to home.

Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , ,