“I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government.” [Michael Chernoff, Chief of Homeland Security]

That was the response, not only from Chernoff, but from most of the print and electronic media to a phony press conference staged by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, last Tuesday. The purpose was to update the media about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California. To make matters worse, the event was carried live by Fox News and several cable news services, even though no reporters were present. To viewers, the fraud looked like the real thing.

After giving only fifteen minutes advance notice, the faux news conference began with FEMA deputy administrator Vice Admiral Harvey E. Johnson at the podium, and FEMA staff members asking innocuous and gratuitous questions to which the admiral had ready answers. “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” one FEMA employee asked. “I’m very happy with FEMA’s response so far,” responded Johnson.

Because of the short notice, FEMA provided an 800 number for reporters, although it was a listen-only arrangement. Thus, no hard questions for the deputy administrator, noted the Los Angeles Times. The paper reminded its readers that “FEMA’s error in judgment came just slightly more than two years after its agonizingly slow-motion response to thousands of displaced New Orleans residents who waited for help in dreadful conditions at the Superdome.” The agency’s head, Michael Brown resigned, although he was praised by President Bush with the now-famous comment, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

This time, the White House was not pleased. Press Secretary Dana Perino later told reporters the FEMA news conference was not something she would have approved. “It was an error in judgment, not something I would have condoned. I’m sure they will not do it again,” she said.

The fate of Johnson, a retired Coast Guard officer, remains unclear. His boss, Chernoff, said ominously that “appropriate discipline” would be taken. “I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not ever to happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment,” said Chernoff. Translation: admiral, you and your fake reporters should update their resumes.

The Washington Post noted that Admiral Johnson hammered a few nails into his coffin when he said at the briefing, “What you’re seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership, none of which were present during Hurricane Katrina.” Uh, admiral, wasn’t your current boss, Michael Chernoff, in charge of things then?

It’s a well-known fact that members of the print and broadcast media have long, long memories when it comes to being flim-flammed by some government wonk who thinks he’s going to do something keen. The foot-in-mouth disease also spread to FEMA’s deputy director of public affairs, Mike Widomski. “If the worst thing that happens to me in this disaster is that we had staff in the chairs to ask questions that reporters had been asking all day, trust me, I’ll be happy,” chirped Widomski. Believe us Mike, the worst is yet to come.

– Chase.Hamil

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