FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be . . . FEMA
By Al Kamen
Friday, October 26, 2007; A19
FEMA has truly learned the lessons of Katrina. Even its handling of the media has improved dramatically. For example, as the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator, had a 1 p.m. news briefing.
Reporters were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices. They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a "listen only" line, the notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets.
Johnson stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he would take a few questions. 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.
FEMA press secretary Aaron Walker interrupted at one point to caution he'd allow just "two more questions." Later, he called for a "last question."
"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."
"And so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. 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.
Asked about this, Widomski said: "We had been getting mobbed with phone calls from reporters, and this was thrown together at the last minute."
But the staff did not make up the questions, he said, and Johnson did not know what was going to be asked. "We pulled questions from those we had been getting from reporters earlier in the day." Despite the very short notice, "we were expecting the press to come," he said, but they didn't. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like the real thing.
"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, Widomski said, "trust me, I'll be happy."
Heck of a job, Harvey.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino condemned FEMA for staging a phony news conference
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House scolded the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday for staging a phony news conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.
The agency — much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago — arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of independent reporters Tuesday and ask questions of Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the agency's deputy director.
The questions were predictably soft and gratuitous.
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was not appropriate that the questions were posed by agency staffers instead of reporters. FEMA was responsible for the "error in judgment," she said, adding that the White House did not know about it beforehand and did not condone it.
"FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regard to the wildfires in California," Perino said. "It's not something I would have condoned. And they — I'm sure — will not do it again."
She said the agency was just trying to provide information to the public, through the press, because there were so many questions.
"I don't think that there was any mal-intent," Perino said "It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."
FEMA gave real reporters only 15 minutes notice about Tuesday's news conference . But because there was so little advance notice, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in.
And many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.
On Thursday, FEMA employees had played the part of reporters. Johnson issued a statement Friday, saying that FEMA's goal was "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," he said. "We can and must do better."
Officials at the Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, expressed their concern.
"This is simply inexcusable and offensive to the secretary that such a mistake could be made," Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said Friday, referring to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"Stunts such as this will not be tolerated or repeated."
Keehner said senior leadership is considering whether a punishment is necessary.It's certainly one way to avoid the tough questions.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is getting serious flak after it let staffers pose as journalists and lob softball questions at one of its top officials at a hastily organized "press briefing" on the California wildfires.
Deputy administrator Harvey Johnson took "questions" from four people identified by the Washington Post as three directors and a press aide, who then didn't allow any questions from the actual journos in the room.
The White House strongly criticized FEMA, and the agency apologized for its "error in judgment." FEMA, of course, was once run by Michael Brown, whose qualification for the job was his experience in running the International Arabian Horse Association. He later resigned.