It’s hard to fathom what exactly the folks at FEMA were thinking. This weekend we found out that at a press conference last week to discuss the Southern California fires, FEMA had their own employees pose as reporters and ask such hard-hitting questions of the agency’s deputy director as, “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”
Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson replied, “I’m very happy with FEMA’s response.”
Oh really? Well, we aren’t and neither was Johnson’s boss, Michael Chertoff who fiercely rebuked his own people, saying, “I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government.”
The excuse given by the agency was that they had been besieged by questions from the press related to the fires. After giving reporters fifteen minutes notice for a press conference and finding not enough of them there, they just decided to fill the seats with staffers like Cindy Taylor, FEMA’s deputy director of external affairs, and “Mike” Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. They claim they were just asking the types of questions they had been fielding all day. They were representing the journalists. But that’s not really how it sounded as softball after softball was lobbed at the deputy director.
What I found most disturbing about this fake news conference was that the FEMA staffers apparently did not feel there was anything wrong in putting on this production. As they saw it, the reporters were simply actors in an elaborate play and who cares if the understudies filled in for one presser. It displayed a distinct misunderstanding of the role of journalists. If these government workers had any sense that the press was there to hold them accountable they would never have felt comfortable stepping into their shoes for even a second. The real question is: Who is responsible for the press’ loss of credibility? If journalists have made it seem that their role at such press conferences is not a combative one, maybe it’s not hard to imagine why FEMA thought it would be so easy to mimic them.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.