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Truth Or Consequences

Surprise: After years of getting less play than many other homeland security issues, reporters are focused on ports. And – how 'bout that! – they're also covering the United Arab Emirates, a country so low profile most Americans probably couldn't point it out on a map. (It's here, by the way.) Sure, the Dubai Ports World story is important, but it's not the kind of thing that traditionally stays top news for days on end. So what gives?

I think the key to understanding the coverage is acknowledging that there are actually two stories here: The story of what happened – we'll call that The Facts Of The Deal – and the story of the political wrangling that followed it. The Facts Of The Deal story hasn't gotten all that much play, but if you look around, there's some decent analysis out there. Yet most people I speak to don't seem to have a fully formed opinion on whether or not allowing Dubai Ports World to take over the ports poses a legitimate security risk. Why? It's not that it's impossible to render a verdict, as many in the media, including our own Dick Meyer, have already done. (Wrote Meyer: "Never have I seen a bogus story explode so fast and so far.") But here's the thing: When it comes to Facts Of The Deal, most of us – public, press and politicians – just don't seem to care.

What we're really interested in isn't the minutia of the deal or the nature of the U.A.E.'s track record or the fact that "American companies began withdrawing decades ago from the unglamorous business of stevedoring." It's the other story – the The Art Of The Deal, or, to put it more simply, the politics. For political reporters and media junkies, it doesn't matter whether or not the deal is getting a fair shake. What matters is the political fight that's emerged. The deal opens up all sorts of storylines: President Bush clashing with the GOP, strange bedfellow bipartisanism, Americans' perception of their national security, political jockeying for the midterm and 2008 elections. The ports dustup gives reporters their latest chapter in the continuing saga of American political life. The deal itself seems almost insignificant by comparison.

So do the media deserve blame for being irresponsible, for not giving Americans a sense of the facts before obsessing over the politics? Perhaps. But I don't think the press is all that far from the American people on this one. I can't prove it, but I suspect most of us are more interested in how Hillary Clinton is going to play the issue than the inside story of Dubai Ports World. Which is why news outlets like CBS had a camera crew set up for Hillary's breakfast speech at the Miami Chamber of Commerce Friday.

As for the truth beneath all the politicking? I hate to say it, but I just don't get the impression that most of us are bothered enough to care or way or the other.