The American press has done a fine job stoking concerns over the fact that a company from the United Arab Emirates is taking over the commercial operations of some U.S. ports. But while we’ve heard plenty about the supposed threats to American security, journalists from just about every major news organization are confusing the actual facts of the story. The generally accepted wisdom is that six ports are slated to change hands — or it was until UPI Pentagon Correspondent Pamela Hess reported on Friday that the UAE company, Dubai Ports World, is “poised to take over port terminal operations in 21 American ports, far more than the six widely reported.”
Indeed, if you visit the Web site of P&O Ports, the British company that ran the ports before their handover, you will find that it does indeed manage twenty-one ports in the United States. So why is everyone in the press reporting that the fuss is all about six ports?
It looks like another case of press release journalism.
A P&O spokesman told us yesterday that “P&O has operations in 21 ports, some are as minor as stevedore operations, where a crew boards a vessel and unloads ships.” And why the discrepancy between the actual and reported number? The issue, according to the spokesman, “lies in those six ports, due to security.”
So, are there security issues in the other 15 ports? “Hopefully not,” said the spokesman.
That answer wasn’t very reassuring. It also didn’t seem to quite explain the fixation on six ports, as opposed to 21. So we did what some reporter should have done two weeks ago: We called Robin Dolan, P&O’s vice president for business development.
Dolan said that the confusion could lie in the difference between “container terminals” and ports where the company performs stevedoring operations. Container terminals are found at big ports, like New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Miami, which handle international shipping, and where large amounts of cargo is unloaded and shipped out to the rest of the country. Stevedoring, Dolan explained, primarily involves “taking cargo off one ship and putting it on another ship,” and usually includes items such as rubber, plywood, and farm goods. Yet even this does not explain the discrepancy because, in fact, there are only five ports with container terminals (as opposed to the six we keep hearing about), according to Dolan, who says he’s seen quite a bit of misinformation in reports on this issue.
The most likely possibility, then, is that the incorrect reports can be sourced to a press release issued by New York Senator Hillary Clinton. As Dolan notes, the release “stated that the New York and New Jersey ports were separate, when they’re one port.”
So, in effect, reporters allowed Hillary Clinton to write an important part of their stories. That is a shame, because this is an important issue. Journalists who should know better were too busy frittering with the atmospherics to spend some time figuring out what is really at stake.