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« NASA's Culture Of Denial | Main | The Gehman Report »

Shoddy Reporting

And lazy reporting, at Fox News, in a story about the Gehman Report, as pointed out by Matt Bille over at today.

"There has been a subtle change at NASA," physics professor Robert Park of the University of Maryland told Fox News, referring to the amount of outsourcing the agency has done in recent years.

Park said he'd been told that in the control room at the time of the accident "there were no NASA employees. It was all contractors."

Three points.

First, why does anyone care what a physics professor at the University of Maryland says or thinks? Why automatically go to your rolodex of bombastic kneejerk opponents of the manned space program (which Professor Parks is)?

Second, "he'd been told" is not exactly great sourcing. As Matt says, why take the word of someone known to be antagonistic to NASA, rather than simply calling NASA and verifying whether or not there were NASA employees in the control room. As it reads, there is an implication that it's true. There's another implication, which brings us to item three.

Even if true, why is this a bad thing? Why should we assume that civil servants are more competent or responsible than contractor employees? There seems to be an implication here (entirely unjustified) that government employees are noble and have only the interests of safety and the program at heart, but they were replaced by black-hearted greedy knaves with no interest other than crashing space shuttles while fleecing the taxpayer. If that caricature is not what we're supposed to infer, then just what is his point?

[Update at 8 PM PDT]

Jorge Frank over at has an interesting URL disputing Professor Park (warning, it's a big file--over two megs). As he says:

This is the group photo for the STS-107 Ascent/Entry team. For reference, NASA badges have a blue NASA logo on a yellow background to the left of the photo, while contractor badges have black barberpoles on both sides of the photo.
Posted by Rand Simberg at August 26, 2003 02:36 PM
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"Why does anyone care what a physics professor at the University of Maryland says?"
Because Parks has been whittering against NASA and manned space flight for decades. Water on stone and all that.

Posted by at August 26, 2003 02:52 PM

To be fair to Fox, Park shows up on a lot of networks. To be sure, he shouldn't be given the time of day, or at least not be given air time without being balanced by someone else knowledgable enough to point out his fallacies.

Posted by Mark R, Whittington at August 26, 2003 03:42 PM

Sorry, that's no excuse. Just because he shows up on a lot of networks doesn't mean that he shouldn't be fact checked. They shouldn't simply accept his unsourced word for something that's supposedly a criticism of the agency, when it's an objective fact, rather than an opinion.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 26, 2003 04:15 PM

Perhaps his point was more that contractors are temporary employees, and therefore unlikely to be as experienced as civil servants. Of course, it's not necessarily true that contractors are temporary employees. I know people who have been contractors to NASA for decades.

Posted by Angie Schultz at August 26, 2003 05:27 PM

Rand, I think I said that.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at August 26, 2003 06:32 PM

Its amazing how far the perceived divide is between gov't employees and contractors. Why I worked one location as a contractor and they wouldn't even let us drink "their" coffee out of the breakroom. So, I brought a coffee grinder and gourmet coffe and my own 4 cup coffee maker and setup right there at my desk. Would come in at 7:30 a.m. and "WHEEEEEE!!" with the coffee grinder shortly followed by the aroma of mocha java from the Whole Foods.

Posted by Hefty at August 26, 2003 07:29 PM

Contractor's are definitely the cinderella's of any federal organization (I'm extrapolating from my experience as a contractor with the DOT,FAA.)

Generally, a wicked step mother is required to sign off on any real decisions.

Posted by ken anthony at August 27, 2003 02:57 AM

I saw him talk on Fox. What I got was a Very Important Professor From A Very Important College who was there to explain the facts of life to the little people who are really too stupid to understand.

Although maybe he does have a point.

As a contractor person I know I certainly get up everyday with the one thought burning in my mind of how I can destroy the Space Shuttle and maximize my company's bottom line.

Posted by Michael at August 27, 2003 06:44 AM

I have the same gripe about Airport luggage screeners. After Sept 11th, Congress decided that the government needed to be in charge of baggage screening. So we took all the contracters doing the screening and gave them a government badge. I feel so much safer now.

Posted by Sean at August 27, 2003 09:21 AM

Contractor/Civil servant makeup "in the control room at the time of the accident" is especially irreleavent given that it's pretty well established that on entry day there was nothing that could have been done.

Posted by Sean at August 27, 2003 10:03 AM

I have been a contractor since 1990 - NASA and quite a number of "private" companies. In all cases, I was "acceptable" as long as I solved the burning problem of the moment that no one else wanted to solve. However, when I started solving real problems in a way to make them go away, I was "contractor scum" and quite disposable.

Posted by Lionell Griffith at September 5, 2003 07:08 AM

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