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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New reason to hate Bush: FEMA "fakes" a press conference

By Dennis Byrne

For days, media vultures have been circling the California wildfires, eyes peeled for another Hurricane Katrina “blunder” by the Bush administration.

But in the absence of red meat, they had to settle for—horrors!—a “fake” news conference conducted by FEMA’s deputy administrator, Harvey E. Johnson Jr., as evidence of the administration’s ineptitude or, worse, deception.

Judging by the press reaction, you would have thought Johnson had set some of the fires himself. Hundreds of stories describing the supposed scandal popped up across the country, including this blast in the Los Angeles Times:

The “fake” press conference “…comes just more than two years after [FEMA’s] agonizingly slow-motion response to thousands of displaced New Orleans residents who waited for help in dreadful conditions at the Superdome. Michael D. Brown, the agency's head, resigned under fire after he became an embarrassment to President Bush, who appeared out of touch when he praised Brown with the memorable comment: ‘Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.’”

It also reminded me of the agonizingly slow response to Katrina by Democratic Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, but why bring that up when taking a shot at Bush is so much more fun? I suppose we should be glad that the two weren’t responsible for putting out the California fires.

The stories dutifully reported that an incensed Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) demanded answers from the head of FEMA, and as chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, who, but her is better positioned to keep the heat on?

Other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who mindlessly blamed the wildfires on “global warming?”

FEMA and others in the Bush administration, frightened out of their skins by the possibility of a repeat of the Katrina public relations mess, hurriedly rushed forward with copious apologies, calling the press conference the worst thing imaginable—“offensive.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long after the California fires went out of control before the inevitable comparisons with Katrina were being raised. The only problem was that everyone seemed to perform well, which is what the “fake” press conference was supposed to be all about.

You can hardly blame FEMA for wanting to hold a press conference, both to blow its own horn and, more legitimately, to update the media on the progress of the fight against the catastrophic blazes. FEMA called a hurry-up news conference, with 15 minutes notice to reporters. The first mistake. Realizing that few reporters could make it, the agency provided an 800 number for reporters not on the scene to listen into the press conference, but no provision was made for them to ask questions—the second mistake. The only problem was that no reporters showed up for the actual press conference. Someone decided that it would be better to go ahead, with FEMA staff members asking questions reflective of ones that they had actually been fielding from reporters. Third mistake.

They might have avoided the problem if FEMA had just announced that no reporters were present, and in their absence FEMA was (A) canceling the press conference, or (B) forging ahead with Johnson’s prepared statement as planned, but frankly admitting that no questions could be asked. “Sorry we can’t do better at the moment, but call or e-mail us with your questions and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible and try to set up a press conference later with better notice.”

I have no idea why none of this happened. The harshest critics will try to suggest that FEMA intentionally tried to fool the press into thinking that it was a legitimate press conference, and I can’t say that they didn’t. The critics also will recall that the administration already has been caught trying to “manufacture” the news, when it paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, $240,000 to promote Education Department programs.

But, having been in the news and PR businesses for almost a combined 40 years, I can’t imagine even the most idiotic publicist thinking that he could get away with faking a news conference. FEMA either needs better PR advice, or its top officials need to listen better to their PR experts if or when they give good advice.

Or, more pointedly, they shouldn’t be driven by the fear of what the partisan jerks will say. Such as Reid blaming Bush for the wildfires because his administration hadn’t provided enough funding for removing the dead tress and shrubs that fed the fire.

Maybe they’ll next accuse Bush of not “doing enough” to prevent the winds that stoked the wildfires.

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