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Peabody Award Winners: KXNV-TV, Phoenix, ‘Security Risks at Sky Harbor’

When Susan D’Astoli, senior executive producer at KNXV-TV in Phoenix, got a tip that all was not secure at the local airport, she decided to see for herself. “We sat down with some bags, looked like travelers and just observed what was happening at the checkpoints,” she said.

At midnight, she found out exactly why her source was concerned about security: The checkpoints manned by the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration shut down. X-ray machines shut down. In came non-TSA personnel who demonstrated a different view of what constitutes airport security. “They allowed person after person to walk in without the bags being screened,” she said. “We saw people pushing cleaning carts go through.”

At 4:30 a.m., TSA officers came back on duty. KNXV-TV reporter Lisa Fletcher and producer Jonathan Elias went back five nights in a row and, sure enough, TSA shut down operations nightly at the same time.

“We consulted top security experts and showed them what we found,” Ms. D’Astoli said. “They, too, were appalled. The ‘door’ was open for at least four hours a night.”

The news team learned the airport administration had made an agreement with TSA in 2005 to hire an outside security firm that would not search people or personal items. “In principal, flights were through for the day [by then],” said Ms. D’Astoli. “But any flight could be delayed. What concerned us is that anything could have gotten through.”

For the report, both TSA and the airport officials declined to comment. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

“We aired the story on a Friday night, and the mayor of Phoenix agreed to speak with us on Saturday,” said Ms. D’Astoli. “By Monday morning, the TSA in Washington, D.C., suspended and replaced the federal security director at the airport, the TSA went back on duty 24/7, the outside guard company went away and the TSA started looking at security in other airports.”

TSA officials finally agreed to be interviewed Monday night.

Ms. D’Astoli credits her top-notch team, including photographer Filip Kapsa and editor Vivek Narayan, and Scripps Howard for its “tremendous investment in investigative news.”

“It was extremely gratifying,” she said of the quick response to the story. “We’re part of the flying public, too. Once we understood what was happening, we said, ‘This is a matter of national security, we’ve got to get this story.’ And I’ve never seen the government move so fast.”

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