News forces change at the housing authority; what’ll happen with the Post’s ‘unsecure’ chain at JFK?

Today's tabloids, Aug. 17, 2012. (Click here to enlarge)
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

The 24-hour airport-security shocker
The New York Post today touts an exclusive: "JFK fuel line left vulnerable to terrorists," thick black letters warn us, under a giant headline that reads "DE-FENCE-LESS."

What it seems to boil down to is that Gate 112 in the perimeter fence around John F. Kennedy International Airport, near an access point to the Buckeye pipeline, which carries 8.4 million gallons of fuel from New Jersey through Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens to the airport every day, was found unlocked by a Port Authority police officer. The report of his finding at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday morning was obtained by the Post.

The report initially says only that the gate was found "unsecured," but the really troubling stuff is in the follow-ups. First, the tour commander who was advised of the condition confessed he didn't know where Gate 112 was; then, in an attempt to find video surveillance that is supposed to monitor the gate, it was found that "no camera was able to observe Gate 112 area."

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How insecure was the gate? The Post interviews following up on the report don't seem to establish that very fully. First, Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye told the Post the report was "a lie," though it was not clear what was meant. Then, Paul Nunziato, president of the union that represents the Port Authority police officers and employees, on the same call, said it was "not a lie."

Then the officer who filed the report got on the phone with the Post (a union representative in tow) to say that in fact Gate 112 is secured with two heavy chains, and only one of them was unlocked. He said what he called in was an "unsecure" chain, not an insecure gate. Everyone agreed the lack of camera coverage on the gate that was discovered after the report was acted upon was a serious security matter; the Port Authority turned down the Post's request to immediately view the fence themselves.

But lets reach cruising altitude on this now.

On Saturday night, the Post broke the story of Daniel Casillo, a Howard Beach man who was partying with friends when they decided to have a jet ski race in Jamaica Bay. Casillo broke down, and swam to shore—which in this case was JFK airport—scaled an eight-foot fence, crossed two runways and entered a terminal before anyone saw him, despite his bright yellow safety vest.

That renewed interest in the long-criticized security perimeter at New York area airports. Kennedy's security system was purchased as part of a security package being debuted by Raytheon; it's a $100 million deal, but it's been plagued with problems from the very start.

Scheduled to be fully operational in 2008, two years later, an investigation by ABC News (also an "Exclusive!") found it wasn't. Back then the problem was that most of the system was not operational; it was found that heavy wind or an excited squirrel could set off the alarm, a complex rigging involving radar and cameras, so that security got so many false alarms they no longer paid attention to them.

The project was overbudget and late. Senators Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez both called for Raytheon's head, as Rep. Peter King does today in light of the Casillo skidoo incident. Since then there have been several such episodes.

The pipeline at JFK was the centerpiece of a 2007 plot that promised to cause destruction on a massive, 9/11 scale, because it would blow up a pipeline that runs through three New York boroughs, including massively developed residential and commercial areas.

But notice the cycle: An "exclusive" is made out of a fault in the Raytheon perimeter, usually due to a tip. These tips are not hard to get, as they clearly come from the Port Authority police, whose numbers have been reduced because many regular foot patrols were eliminated when the Raytheon system was rigged up.

The "exclusive" usually results in one or more politicians promising to rain down hell from D.C. on Raytheon and the Port Authority.

And then: Nothing.

It's one of those instances in which the reality of the political cycle and the media business conspire to make something drag on. This is boring stuff. I considered attaching here a PDF of the Raytheon system, which was discovered by Business Insider, but decided you wouldn't click on it. (You can find it here.)

Fencing systems at airports, and gripes of the Port Authority police unions, and contracts between Raytheon and a bistate agency, are really only good for one day, when something "big" happens, like Skidoo day or unlocked-chain day or fence-tear day or any of the many instances of security breach. If the story can't survive Day 2, then the politicians move on. Until it's time to dole out another "exclusive" to another news outlet and begin the cycle again.

Burning down the housing authority
Which is what is so impressive about today's news that the New York City Housing Authority is implementing big reforms. This, too, was the kind of story that had a cycle. Since 2009, we've read reports that NYCHA was sitting on funding while public housing units proliferated with mold, missing doors, poor plumbing, and rat infestations. Meanwhile board members took in six-figure salaries and had full-time drivers.

I will admit I was cynical the first time the News fronted the story on Aug. 1. It was one I had heard before—as far back as 1993, when the agency had to send tens of millions of dollars of unspent money back to D.C. because they hadn't deployed them in the time frame mandated by law. The city then set up a unit to track all federally-funded projects to make sure they were making the best use of funds and using them on time, but that unit was dismantled by Michael Bloomberg when he took office.

This story, too, seemed to be a part of a cycle in which, as long as we hadn't heard much about it lately, could be splashed on a newspaper as an exclusive, generate 24 hours of outrage and promises and defenses, and then slip out of public view.

I even wondered at the News' continued battering at the story over the last two weeks. Admirable, but surely not good for business?

But they had the courage of their conviction on this and, after a scathing audit by the Boston Consulting Group, the board of NYCHA is being dismantled and restructured and reforms are taking place up and down the agency. What's more, in addition to having to do all this, pretty much exclusively as a result of the News' campaign, NYCHA's chair had to sit across from the News editorial board and explain himself to them. There is no surer way to secure yourself as the media organization that made something that seemed like an endless cycle finally come to some version of an end. The News just won, plain and simple.

And that has to have the Post cursing into its cereal bowls this morning.

Husband No. 1
But there is one more exclusive to talk about today! The Post's Page Six somehow managed to find out that its former columnist, Ashley Dupre, is seven months pregnant—something everyone who lives in Red Bank, N.J. and frequents her store already knows. She's been linked with a local concrete magnate, and are planning a wedding.

The curious headline: "Spitzer hooker pregnant (and it ain't Eliot's!)."

It would be bigger news if it were, guys.

Observations:
Not much to say today. The News beat the Post at its own "investigative" game. Let's see if the Post can score a win by owning the Raytheon-Port Authority debacle somewhere down the road.

Winner: Daily News.