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FEMA Admits It Held Fake Press Conference About California Wildfires; FEMA Staffers Posed as Journalists

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On Tuesday, FEMA staged a fake press conference with agency staffers posing as news reporters. One FEMA staffer who pretended to be a journalist has since been promoted to become head of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Department of Homeland Security acknowledged Friday the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, had staged a fake news conference Tuesday with agency staffers posing as news reporters. Their acknowledgment, as well as an apology from FEMA officials, followed a Washington Post report that exposed the staged event. FEMA had only given reporters 15 minutes’ notice for Tuesday’s news conference. A toll-free telephone line allowed reporters to listen to the proceedings, but not to pose any questions. The news conference was carried by MSNBC and Fox.

This is an excerpt of the fake news conference, where the FEMA staff asked their boss Harvey Johnson, the FEMA deputy administrator, well, friendly questions.

FEMA STAFFER: Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?

HARVEY JOHNSON: I’m very happy with FEMA’s response so far. If you look at where FEMA has come over the last couple years, to see this one-hour VTC with the region in place and aggressively linked in with the state, a regional administrator who’s at the state EOC with the state Office of Emergency Services, linked up there for the last couple days to make sure that we understand the situation and can bring the right support to the state. This is a FEMA and a federal government that’s leaning forward, not waiting to react. And you have to be pretty pleased to see that.

Listen to the mayor of San Diego and ask him what he thinks about FEMA’s performance, and he’ll tell you that he couldn’t be more pleased with the support he’s been provided by the federal government, coordinated by FEMA. And ask Governor Schwarzenegger what he thinks about FEMA’s performance, he’ll tell you the same thing, that he couldn’t be more pleased at how FEMA recognizes the role the federal government is facilitating in that effort to the benefit of the state and the communities and those disaster victims in California. So you have to be really proud at the way our FEMA team has pulled together, looking beyond our own bounds of FEMA to bring the federal partners together.

MODERATOR: Last question?

FEMA STAFFER: What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?

HARVEY JOHNSON: And lessons learned from Katrina, it’s like, is there day and is there night? And if you take a look at Katrina, where there really was no leaning forward, really, there really was not a fabric of federal partners, where there wasn’t good smooth communications between the governor and the administrator of FEMA, the governor and the president, to see all the federal partners linked together, pre-scripting mission assignments, having contracts in place, following a game plan, we didn’t do any of those kind of things in Katrina. And what you’re seeing now is a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team.

You are seeing some fits and starts, as you would expect in a disaster. It’s not storybook perfect, but you’re seeing people react and to see in a gap and to fill it right away and not wait to be told to fill it. And you’re seeing a gap that exists for moments, not for days or a week. 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, none of which were present in Katrina. So I think as a nation, people should sit up and take notice that you have the worst wildfire season in history in California, and look at how well the state and the local governments are performing, look at how well we’re working together between state and federal partners. It’s a good thing to see, and it should be reassuring to the American public that if a disaster does strike our country, whether it’s California or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast, that we’ll do the same thing, we’ll pull together to support state and locals’ common objectives by teamwork and partnership.

AMY GOODMAN: FEMA deputy administrator Harvey Johnson being questioned by — well, the country thought they were reporters, but they were FEMA staffers posing as reporters. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff sharply rebuked FEMA Saturday and called the staged news briefing “one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen.” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also addressed questions about this at her news briefing Friday.

REPORTER: On Tuesday, FEMA’s deputy administrator held what was called a news briefing to talk about the California wildfires. And from what we understand, the questions were posed not by reporters, but by staffers, and that distinction was not made known. Is that appropriate?

DANA PERINO: It is not. It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we — we certainly don’t condone it. We didn’t know about it beforehand. FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to try to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regards to the wildfires in California. It’s not something I would have condoned, and they, I’m sure, will not do it again.

REPORTER: Who is responsible?

DANA PERINO: FEMA is responsible, and they have taken that — they have accepted that responsibility, and they issued an apology today.

REPORTER: But isn’t — a follow-up on that. Isn’t there a normal morning call with all the press secretaries of all the agencies here, and whether somebody is having a press briefing or not is discussed?

DANA PERINO: We have a variety of ways that we talk to the — communicate to the communicators in the agencies. FEMA is not on that daily call, no, and I don’t know if the DHS — the head of DHS communications knew about it either. But FEMA has apologized for the error in judgment.

REPORTER: Dana, why didn’t this raise alarm bells, in terms of credibility, with anyone there?

DANA PERINO: You’ll have to ask them. They have admitted that they had an error in judgment. I would agree with that. They’ve issued an apology. And, you know, you’ll have to ask them about why they decided to do that.

REPORTER: But isn’t the president concerned, at a time when he is traveling to the area to talk about a very significant natural disaster — there have been issues about FEMA in the past, trying to make a distinction about progress made, and for them to effectively pretend to hold a news conference, doesn’t the president have concerns about that?

DANA PERINO: I just said that the White House did not know about it beforehand, and the White House condones it. And they have apologized for it. They had an error in judgment. They have admitted that. And I think that what they were — I don’t think that there was any mal-intent. I think that they were trying to provide information to the public through the press, because there were so many questions pouring in. It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that.

REPORTER: Will anybody be reprimanded?

DANA PERINO: You’ll have to ask FEMA.

AMY GOODMAN: White House press person, Dana Perino, being questioned by real reporters at the White House, or at least they play them on TV. This is Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. She coordinates the Center’s “No Fake News” campaign, joining us now by phone from Madison, Wisconsin.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Diane. Your response to this news conference?

DIANE FARSETTA: Well, I think it has to be seen as an attempt at deliberate deception by the Bush administration and one in a long string of cases where we’ve seen this type of behavior, this really contempt for the role of a free press in a democracy. It happened almost two years to the day that there was a quote-unquote “teleconference” with the troops in Iraq that President Bush held, where it turned out that they had been prepped beforehand by the Pentagon’s lead PR person, Allison Barber. So we’ve seen this time and time again. There’s Armstrong Williams. There’s Jeff Gannon. Unfortunately, the Bush administration doesn’t seem to really understand that there needs to be independent reporters.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain again who Jeff Gannon is, for those with short memory.

DIANE FARSETTA: Sure. He is a person who was receiving daily passes to White House briefings. He was associated with the Republican Party, really had no real press credentials, but was in the briefing room at the White House asking softball questions at hard times during press conferences.

AMY GOODMAN: What more do you know about this news conference? Harvey Johnson, the deputy administrator of FEMA, they call a news conference, give reporters fifteen minutes to get there in Southern California. Of course, they can’t get there, so they’re told to call into a number, and they’re told they can only listen, they cannot participate. So they’re watching it on MSNBC, or they’re just listening on the phone, or they’re watching it on Fox, which is carrying it live. And explain who the — well, the fake reporters were.

DIANE FARSETTA: Right. Well, there were four staff people with FEMA who all had roles in dealing with the media. So I think it’s important to point out that these are not people who are not used to these type of situations. These are people who work at a federal agency that deals with emergency situations, and they work specifically with press. One of them, John Philbin, who’s — or who was, until last week, FEMA’s director of external affairs, he had a quarter-century career so far working in government with media, specifically working on crisis communication — marketing communications, brand management are his areas of expertise, and I think that’s what we really saw was brand management. They couldn’t have known — or they couldn’t not have known that this would reflect very poorly on FEMA if the word got out. And they basically seem to have been assuming that the word would not get out about what they were doing.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s astounding is where Philbin is now going.


AMY GOODMAN: He was hardly punished.

DIANE FARSETTA: Right, exactly. He seems to have gotten a promotion to head public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. So, one can only wonder what he’ll be doing in his new position.

AMY GOODMAN: Have any of the others gotten promotions after faking reporters — being reporters?

DIANE FARSETTA: Not in this case so far. It will be interesting — I mean, you had aired some of, you know, the White House spokesperson, and the Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff did come out and condemn. I think, you know, that’s what you have to do in these cases when you get caught, is come out and condemn. But it will be interesting to see is anyone actually held accountable for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Farsetta, very briefly, before we go to break, any updates on your whole campaign around exposing networks, local news stations that use video news releases, VNRs, either government VNRs or corporate VNRs?

DIANE FARSETTA: Right. We did have a very exciting breakthrough. The Federal Communications Commission proposed five fines against Comcast Corporation for one of their cable channels, CN8, having aired five VNRs without disclosure. It’s far from a done deal —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what those VNRs are.

DIANE FARSETTA: Sure. They are — they’re sponsored PR videos. They were promoting things like Wheaties brand cereal, and they were being aired as news without any disclosure. So, fines have been proposed. Comcast is appealing. And there’s more than 110 other TV stations that we hope the FCC will be announcing fines against.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Farsetta, I want to thank you for being with us, senior researcher at the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy. She leads their “No Fake News” campaign.

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