Show and tell

Show and tell

This is a great time for cable TV talkers. First, Vice President Cheney accidentally shoots a hunting buddy in Texas and, through witless secrecy, keeps the story alive for a week. Then, on a slow Presidents Day weekend, the American public is scared silly by breathless reports that Dubai's government is taking over six U.S. ports!

Politicians of all stripes have been tripping over each other to rant against DP World's acquisition of P&O Ports. Publications from the liberal New York Times to the conservative Washington Times have printed hysterical editorials. Bloggers have had a field day. Broadcasters have spewed enough hot air to melt the polar icecap.

Watching this ridiculous spectacle unfold, I've been trying to guess which politicians and pundits believe the nonsense they're spouting, and which ones know better but can't resist the opportunity for a crowd-pleasing sound bite. There seem to be many of both.

The DP World flap is about politics, not port security. In fact it may be a distraction from the real job of protecting ports from terrorists.

Yes, there are gaping holes in port security, notably in the quality of information provided farther up the supply chain, where U.S.-bound containers are filled at overseas points. But, no, those holes will not be widened if a British company's U.S. port terminal leases are taken over by a company based in Dubai. The Coast Guard will still oversee the ports. Customs and Border Protection will still decide which containers to inspect. American workers will still load and unload the cargo.

The current controversy could have a positive outcome if it leads to an intelligent public discussion of ports and security. But before that can happen, the public, the politicians and the general news media will need a much better understanding of how ports and shipping operate. Most people are clueless, for good reason. This industry does a terrible job of explaining its workings to outsiders - and it pays a price when it lands in the spotlight

Industry executives might take a cue from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. There a group has been inviting members of Congress - some of whom voted against hurricane-relief funds - to view the destruction and get first-hand information. The program seems to be working. After replacing erroneous assumptions with accurate facts, a few senators and representatives have reversed their earlier positions.

Ports and shipping could benefit by launching a similar educational program for members of Congress, their key staffers, reporters and editors, and even the cable TV blow-hards. This could be a worthwhile project for the American Association of Port Authorities or the World Shipping Council - and a good investment for their members.