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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 10/14/2011

Politico scandal: One side-by-side comparison

Politico hasn’t released a side-by-side comparison of the standards-violating stories of now-resigned reporter Kendra Marr and those of the outlets from which she allegedly purloined material and ideas. Rather, Politico issued an editor’s note that merely refers readers to redacted versions of the Marr stories.

That’s not to say that interested readers can’t generate their own side-by-sides. The original Marr stories reside in Nexis, which helps us prepare the following presentation:

Here’s the opening chunk of a New York Times story on the Obama administration’s proposal to hike air-travel security fees:

The Obama administration’s proposal to raise the security fee for air travelers — part of its overall plan to reduce the budget deficit — has reignited a debate over who should pay the bill for aviation security: airlines and their passengers, or all taxpayers.
If the higher fees are adopted, travelers may demand more scrutiny of how the government is spending the nearly $2 billion it already collects each year through these fees, and may ask whether the growing budget for screeners and X-ray scanners can be better managed.
Passengers currently pay a $2.50 security fee for each segment of a trip, up to a maximum of $10 for a round-trip ticket. In its deficit reduction plan released last week, the administration proposed raising the fee initially to $5 for a one-way trip and then increasing the fee by 50 cents a year from 2013 to 2017, ultimately adding up to a $15 security charge on a round-trip airline ticket.
About $15 billion of the additional revenue collected over a decade would go toward deficit reduction. But the administration said another reason for the increase was to raise to 75 percent the portion of aviation security paid for by airlines and their passengers, rather than less than half the budget as has been the case for years.
Dana Hyde, associate director for general government programs at the Office of Management and Budget, said that when Congress created the Transportation Security Administration in 2001, the intention was to recover the agency’s costs through the passenger security fee and a separate security tax paid by the airlines. The original fee has not risen since then even as security costs have grown. As a result, taxpayers have been forced to cover the difference.
With its proposal, the administration aims to shift that balance to a more user-financed system.
“This is increasing the cost to the user, but actually decreasing the cost to the taxpayer,” Ms. Hyde said.
But the airlines and other travel industry groups announced almost immediately that they planned to fight the proposed fee increase, as they have done successfully every time it has been suggested in recent years.
“No other mode of transportation bears the cost of security like the aviation industry and its passengers,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. “Security should be a federal function, and it should be funded as such.”
The airlines also oppose a provision in the administration’s proposal that would impose a new $100 per flight fee on commercial carriers and private planes, which would go to the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic services.
That would increase the amount commercial airlines and general aviation operators already pay for air traffic control, but not address the fact that private planes contribute far less for arguably the same service of guiding an aircraft safely through the airspace.
If Congress passes either proposal, travelers are likely to end up paying the bill.
Given the financial struggles the airlines have experienced during the last decade, Mr. Lott said, any tax increase would have to be offset by service cuts or higher fares. He suggested that increased security fees might also result in a demand for more controls on spending.

Later in the Times piece:

That oversight has mostly come from the Government Accountability Office, which has issued a string of reports critical of the Transportation Security Administration’s tendency to purchase equipment without first evaluating its effectiveness or conducting a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
Most notably, machines that puffed air on travelers to check for explosives had to be scrapped because they broke down frequently. The G.A.O. has also expressed concerns about the use of baggage scanning machines that did not meet current explosives detection standards and the more than $750 million spent on about 3,000 behavioral detection officers at airports without enough evidence that the program’s results justified its cost.

Now, compare: Here’s the opening chunk of Kendra Marr’s original story in Politico on the same subject:

The Transportation Security Administration isn’t making many friends.
If long screening lines, privacy invasions and other TSA-inflicted indignities weren’t enough, the agency now faces a funding battle. A decade since the agency was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, a debate is raging over the cost of aviation security and who should foot the bill.
Even Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who set up the agency, is now pushing to dismantle and privatize what he calls his “little bastard child.”
The TSA is only going to grow. Aviation experts predict increases in domestic air travel as the economy recovers — and that the bigger traffic flow through the nation’s airports will swamp the current “one-size-fits-all” screening unless the TSA receives a bump in its annual budget of about $8 billion.
The White House’s recent proposal to triple the security fee for fliers — part of its deficit reduction plan — has added urgency to the discussion. The airline lobby blanketed Capitol Hill in recent weeks to tell members of Congress and their staffs why the hike would result in thousands of lost jobs, service cuts and higher fares.
“We have soundly beat them back every year and plan to do that again this year,” said Sharon Pinkerton, vice president of government affairs at the Air Transport Association. “Part of our success is people’s frustrations with the growth of the TSA. This agency needs to get its act together.”
Airline passengers currently fork over a $2.50 security fee for each leg of a trip, up to a maximum of $10 for a round-trip airline ticket. This recovers less than half of the TSA’s aviation security costs, which have rapidly grown over the years. Since the fee has remained unchanged, taxpayers have been forced to make up the difference.
Under the president’s plan, the fee would get bumped up to $5 for a one-way trip, then see increases of 50 cents a year from 2013 to 2017. Ultimately, it would add up to a $15 security charge on a round-trip ticket — an increase that’ll cover 75 percent of the aviation security budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
It comes down to a matter of equity. Is aviation security a function of national security, and therefore all taxpayers need to chip in? Or is the traveling public on the hook for this “risky” activity, much like insurance?
“It gets a little into a philosophical discussion,” said Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association.
On top of it all, the White House intends to put about $15 billion of the additional security fee revenue collected over a decade toward paying off the national debt — another point of contention for the aviation community, which argues it shouldn’t be the government’s piggy bank. Airlines also oppose the Obama administration’s call for a new $100 per flight fee on commercial carriers and private planes, which would go to the Federal Aviation Administration for air-traffic services.
But if passengers bear a bigger share of the TSA’s cost, shifting it to a more user-funded system, it’ll add needed scrutiny to the agency’s ballooning budget, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation who studied how aviation security is financed in other countries.
“You’ll look program by program and ask, ‘Is there really a case? Do you get the most bang for the buck? Are the results powerful enough to justify cost?’ ” he said. “The TSA has a tendency to grab on to a new system before it’s really validated.”
The TSA’s bloated size has been well documented. A string of critical reports from the Government Accountability Office has demonstrated its penchant for purchasing equipment without considering efficiency or a cost-benefit analysis.

And also in the Politico piece:

Most notably, the agency rushed to purchase and deploy “puffer” machines in 2004 to screen randomly selected passengers for bombs after they cleared the standard metal detectors. Five years later, the $36 million anti-terrorism program was scrapped when it turned out the air blasts did a better job of kicking up dirt than detecting explosive particles.

The New York Times story hit the streets on Sept. 26; the Politico story, Oct. 10.

The similarities between the two stories in terms of facts and figures and structure are strong. The Times scooped Politico here, and weeks later, Politico appears to be trying to hide that fact from its readers. Throughout most of her story, Marr appears to be executing an artful re-write of the Times piece.

That discipline appears to break down when she gets to the puffing machines. As in the Times version, Marr begins her sentence with the adverbial throat-clearing preface “most notably.” Why borrow the bad writing?

Politico is a Web-savvy news organization. It puts things up on the site fast; it has great blogs; it’s a highly navigable Web architecture; and so on. So why couldn’t the Politico people just link to the New York Times story and move on to something else?

That’s something that the Erik Wemple Blog will be exploring.

(Disclosure: Marr formerly worked at the Washington Post)

By  |  12:49 PM ET, 10/14/2011

 
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