10.27.2007

Fake News Alert: FEMA Goes Hollywood

by Lauren Anderson

This week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held a variety of media briefings related to the California wildfires, but one news conference in Washington, D.C. has raised a few eyebrows. At that news conference, it appeared those asking the questions were reporters, but instead they turned out to be FEMA staffers. The news briefing was a fake. FEMA has apologized, chalking it up to an “error in judgment.”

The Deputy Administrator of FEMA Harvey Johnson (U.S. Coast Guard, Vice Admiral, retired) claimed he used the fake briefing tactic to get the news out quickly. When journalists did not arrive in time for the briefing, which had been called at the last minute, FEMA decided to “fake it.” They proceeded with the normal format of a news conference, even including the customary practice of calling a “last question.”

The questions asked by the FEMA workers posing as reporters were anything but hard-hitting. They were predictable, softball questions answered equally predictably by Johnson. In just six questions, he actually managed to make FEMA look competent. He also complimented the people and administration of California, and put a positive spin on the Hurricane Katrina disaster. If it had been real, it might have been admirable.

The incident brings up a number of questions. Firstly, why didn’t FEMA jut fess up that the staff members were not actually reporters? The real reporters were only given fifteen minutes notice, so one has to wonder how genuinely FEMA wanted them to be there. Secondly, what was really so urgent about the news revealed? None of it was so shocking that it needed to be disclosed quickly. Thirdly, was FEMA hiding something that real reporters might discover? After the Katrina debacle, FEMA has a lot to prove, without a very large margin for error. In this context, it is very possible that they are going to do everything in their power to appear competent and capable in the eyes of the American people.

Naturally, the government staging a fake news conference raises suspicions. We need answers about what was really behind the fakery. Now, we just need to get some real reporters in there to ask the questions.

(Editor's Note: One of the blog's editors is in Los Angeles this weekend, although not out in the canyons where the Santa Ana winds fueled the wildfires. Perhaps the attitude is different elsewhere, but in the city, Angelenos seem rather ambivalent about the news. Perhaps they have seen too many news conferences – fake or otherwise – to get too excited.)

(The photo shows FEMA's Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson at the fake news conference in Washington, D.C. The photo is by FEMA photographer Bill Koplitz; as the photo is from FEMA it is in the public domain.)






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