This gives a whole new meaning to the expression "Faux News."
The Bush administration has taken news manipulation to a new low. The Washington Post's Al Kamen reveals that the "reporters" who lobbed softball questions at FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson on Thursday were, in fact, employees of FEMA.
The first questions were about the "commodities" being shipped to Southern California and how officials are dealing with people who refuse to evacuate. He responded eloquently.
He was apparently quite familiar with the reporters -- in one case, he appears to say "Mike" and points to a reporter -- and was asked an oddly in-house question about "what it means to have an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration" signed by the president. He once again explained smoothly.
"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" a reporter asked. Another asked about "lessons learned from Katrina."
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson said, hailing "a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team."
But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.
Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.
One of the faux reporters, Mike Widomski, defended the propaganda pageant, insisting that the FEMA staffers were simply asking the same questions that real reporters had been asking all day.
The Fox "News" Channel model of news manipulation actually seems rather quaint compared to this. Stalin would be proud.
The story is spreading like... well, you know.
"One way to get decent coverage in this rough-and-tumble city is to arrange to have your own employees interrogate you at your news conference.
That would seem to be the strategy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago."
"It appears the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has found the answer to nosey reporters in the two years since Hurricane Katrina: have a press conference and have your own people ask the questions."
"Neat trick! Next time, though, you might want to ring up Jeff Gannon. He’s cheap! And that will free up the staff to concentrate on more important duties, like going on Starbucks runs and arranging dramatically backlit photo-ops."
"Somebody needs to be fired for this."
And, I couldn't get the embed to work, but the video of actual phony press conference is here, at my blog.
Commenter mspicata found FEMA's official response at MSNBC:
October 26, 2007
STATEMENT IN REGARDS TO FEMA'S TUESDAY PRESS BRIEFING
FEMA's goal is to get information out as soon as possible, and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment. Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received. We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent.
At FEMA, our focus is disaster operations and, in this case, it means working closely with the State of California to support their response to the devastating fires. We're committed to being there for the State and being good partners. In working to do so we did not put enough focus on how we communicate to the public.
The real story -- how well the response and recovery elements are working in this disaster -- should not be lost because of how we tried to meet the needs of the media in distributing facts.
We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment.
"Error in judgment?"
Yes, that is one way of describing it. "Fraud" would be another.
Call me cynical, but I doubt very strongly that they are sorry for defrauding the American people in such a shameless fashion. They're just sorry that they got caught.