October 27, 2007

FEMA's Death Wish

After Katrina, FEMA has suffered under tremendous scrutiny, with some wondering whether it should get entirely disbanded and another agency formed to replace it. Its next disaster response would tell whether FEMA could survive -- and it seems to have met the test in the California wildfires, performing ably and silencing critics. At least it silenced critics until FEMA managed to pull an idiotic stunt that should cause some people to wonder when the grown-ups will return:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's No. 2 official apologized yesterday for leading a staged news conference Tuesday in which FEMA employees posed as reporters while real reporters listened on a telephone conference line and were barred from asking questions.

"We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent," Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr., FEMA's deputy administrator, said in a four-paragraph statement. ....

FEMA announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters about 15 minutes before it was to begin Tuesday afternoon, making it unlikely that reporters could attend. Instead, FEMA set up a telephone conference line so reporters could listen.

In the briefing, parts of which were televised live by cable news channels, Johnson stood behind a lectern, called on questioners who did not disclose that they were FEMA employees, and gave replies emphasizing that his agency's response to this week's California wildfires was far better than its response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

"It was absolutely a bad decision. I regret it happened. Certainly . . . I should have stopped it," said John P. "Pat" Philbin, FEMA's director of external affairs. "I hope readers understand we're working very hard to establish credibility and integrity, and I would hope this does not undermine it."

Who comes up with ideas like this? It's almost as if the writers of The Onion have infiltrated the government. The most mind-boggling aspect of this event is that someone in FEMA actually opened their mouth and proposed staging a fake news conference -- and everyone else went along with it. Everyone, from Admiral Johnson to the plants in the audience, who took part in this phony presser did so with full knowledge of their fakery.

And every one of them should get canned for it. The American public shouldn't have its officials lie to them, especially by pretending to take real questions from real reporters. People who listened to that press conference did so not from some arcane, wonkish interest in policy, but because lives are on the line in Southern California. Over 1600 houses have burnt to the ground. People have died, and many more have risked their lives to save the rest. This is life and death, and FEMA offered us a stage play.

DHS should review FEMA management from top to bottom. Congress should take a good, long look at this, and the White House should take action to remove the people who think that faking press conferences even exists as an option. This goes straight to the credibility of the entire administration. We deserve much better than what FEMA offered -- and the people in the fire zone more so than anyone else. These people at FEMA should be ashamed of themselves.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg has a few questions that may have been asked during this fake presser. McQ notes that the media fakes it, too -- but don't we expect more from our government?

UPDATE II: Longtime CapQ reader Roger Baumgarten, a PR professional, declares this a "a firing offense, for every FEMA staffer who participated in this charade". Be sure to read his pointed analysis.


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