Anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad has a pattern of exaggeration and misrepresentation. The organization and its founder, Tim Ballard, have, over the years, depicted themselves as the heroes of daring rescues they had nothing to do with; undertaken blundering, failed missions on the advice of a psychic; and distanced themselves from QAnon even as Ballard appeared at a fringe conference where Lin Wood made the shape of a Q in the air. One specific incident demonstrated their particular pattern of exaggeration: While Ballard claimed that OUR had gotten trafficking victims American visas and into college, in fact the women entered the U.S. under a non-visa program, making their path to citizenship far more uncertain, and participated in a brief training program, after which OUR staged a graduation ceremony for them—which was of course heavily filmed and promoted. Even OUR’s sister organization, the Nazarene Fund—at the time headed by Ballard—heavily overstated its role in a widely-publicized effort to get Afghanistan’s girls’ national soccer team out of the country during the shambolic departure of U.S. troops last fall, according to people who were involved.
Now, OUR seems to have been misrepresenting something much weirder, with much lower stakes: a supposed “collaboration” with American Airlines. In a video posted on Ballard’s Instagram, in a Tweet, and in a Facebook post on its official page—all of which were deleted after Motherboard asked for comment on this story—OUR claimed to be doing a “collaboration” with American Airlines this month, with the airline showing a video about its work. The minute-long video in question is less an anti-trafficking PSA than simply an ad for OUR featuring an unusually red Ballard, sitting in a chair, talking about the difficulty of rescuing children from sex traffickers, cut with archival video of someone supposedly negotiating with a trafficker over the price of a child.
“For the month of June, O.U.R. has partnered with American Airlines to share our mission and spread information about human trafficking and exploitation,” OUR wrote on Facebook on June 9, tagging the airline. “We are excited to announce that this video will play on all domestic American Airlines flights all month long, and encourage viewers to join us in the fight against human trafficking. We are grateful for this collaboration with American Airlines and look forward to the awareness that will come from this campaign.”
In a statement to Motherboard, though, a spokesperson for American flatly said there was no such collaboration.
“Content from Operation Underground Railroad is not available on American’s in-flight entertainment, and we do not have any partnership or affiliation with the organization,” they wrote. When we asked if they’d ever had a partnership with OUR, one that was perhaps canceled after someone Googled them, the spokesperson said only, “It was never true. We do not have any partnership or affiliation with them, and the content is not available on our in-flight entertainment.”
In response to follow-up questions, the spokesperson added, “We can’t speculate on their motives or intent. We are taking appropriate action to have these posts removed.”
This is all fairly definitive on American’s end, suggesting a hilarious misunderstanding of some sort, or else OUR and Ballard flatly, plainly lying about a partnership with a major airline to burnish their own credentials. Turns out, it’s more of a classic OUR situation: a gross exaggeration.
A spokesperson for OUR told us that in fact, the organization bought an ad with a third-party service provider, Clearwind Media, which describes itself as “a leader in in-flight TV and TV commercial advertising.” Clearwind produces the exciting-sounding advertorial program Companies on the Move, which describes itself as “ an affordable way to increase your visibility and communicate your company’s story.” In other words, it’s an ad. But it also appears to be one that, in American’s telling, never actually ran on their in-flight entertainment.
“Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) entered a paid contractual arrangement with Clearwind Media,” OUR said in a statement, “where OUR understood the full-service advertising agency would place a 1-minute OUR video on its in-flight program on American Airlines during the entire month of May 2022. At no point did Clearwind Media inform OUR that their video did not air on the in-flight program on American Airlines and after learning this, OUR took down the video from online and social sites it controls.”
All of this is qualitatively different from a “collaboration” with American Airlines. But it’s a letter-perfect illustration of how OUR operates: Here’s a grain of truth, embedded in a lily so gilded it topples underneath its own weight.