Ports and politics: A minor story grows explosive

The Public Editor


Articles about Dubai Ports World's purchase of a British firm, which would give the Arab maritime company control of operations at Baltimore and five other U.S. seaports, dominated the front pages in recent weeks.

Coverage of the deal was initially relegated to the business section at The Sun and other newspapers, then suddenly became major news here and across the country.

If it seemed to some that a story given so much prominence came out of nowhere, it did.

Because Dubai Ports World is based in the United Arab Emirates and owned in part by the government there, concerns about potential terrorism at ports caused an outcry among congressional Republicans and Democrats. Others, such as Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, also criticized the agreement.

The Bush administration - which considers the UAE an important ally - had approved DP World's purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) without ordering a security review. But the political furor over the administration's decision and the accompanying concerns about U.S. port security led DP World to request a thorough, 45-day inquiry by the administration, hoping to assuage Congress' fears.

In the last two weeks of February, The Sun produced 25 articles about the reaction.

Why would a story that attracted so little attention for months suddenly explode onto Page 1, without significant developments? It's a question readers ask and one that puzzles even veteran journalists.

The answer, many journalists agree, is that most news is circumstantial. Just how willing Republican politicians are to trust Bush when he says a United Arab Emirates firm can manage U.S. ports depends on how they feel about Bush's leadership in general.

Republicans worried about standing with Bush on issues ranging from the new Medicare drug program to the war in Iraq are increasingly uncomfortable supporting him on the terrorist threat.

And Democrats realized that attacking the president on the port issue met their urgent political need.

The result was an eruption as politicians on the left and right leapt to criticize what seemed a peremptory decision.

The Sun's first article about the purchase agreement was a routine, six-paragraph Business Digest item Nov. 30. Sun reporter Meredith Cohn quoted a port official saying he didn't "expect any changes to the Baltimore operation."

Other newspapers gave similar coverage.

Cohn was asked last week why the Dubai Ports World purchase was not considered terribly important then. "I don't think anyone was thinking about security issues in relation to this deal," she said. "Shipping is an international business and ports are operated by many different private and public entities."

Still, when writing the article about the deal's final approval more than two months later, Cohn decided to ask an industry analyst why the sale had not drawn the attention of U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. The analyst told Cohn, "I'm surprised no one else is asking that question."

Cohn and her editor decided to pursue the security angle. But within hours the security-issue story exploded. Cohn and Washington bureau reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw then produced a Feb. 17 front-page story on the rising political storm over the deal.

Some readers were agitated,

"I am surprised that foreign companies are allowed to have any control over our port," said June Hartzell. "The ports are too important to be in foreign hands."

Cohn's Feb. 22 front-page story addressed global shipping. "Just about any given time, it's possible to find a Greek-owned ship flying a Liberian flag, employing a Filipino crew and carrying cargo from China into a U.S. port terminal managed by a British company that hires American longshoremen," Cohn wrote.

The Sun and others reported that inspection, not ownership, is the key security issue. The articles noted that containers on the ships are the largest security risk because U.S. ports do not have a system to check all cargo.

Reader Mary Neale said: "Thanks for writing articles that provide actual information about the handling of cargo at the terminals in Baltimore and elsewhere - who handles it and who is their employer. I hope all the public officials who have rushed to microphones without knowing all the facts read them."

Business columnist Jay Hancock's Feb. 26 piece, "Politicians bashing Dubai all but ignore real threats," viewed the issue more fully. He said the issue was about "brainless politics and economic jingoism. It's not about safety."

Last week, Cohn said: "Everyone I talk to thinks this is all about politics - trying to appear tough on terrorism."

Still, the blanket coverage could have one important result: making Americans more aware of the serious security issues at U.S. ports.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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