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FEMA's fake 'news conference'

From NBC's Kelly O'Donnell
On Tuesday, FEMA held what was called a "news briefing" on the California fires, but the questions asked did not come from reporters. They were asked instead by FEMA staffers.

VIDEO: FEMA apologizes for having staff workers pretend to be reporters at a news briefing on the Southern California wildfires. NBC's Jeannie Ohm has the story.

"It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we -- we certainly don't condone it," Press Secretary Dana Perino said. "We didn't know about it beforehand. FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error 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. It's not something I would have condoned. And they, I'm sure, will not do it again."

One reporter asked Perino who is responsible?

"Well, FEMA is responsible," she said. "And they have accepted that responsibility, and they issued an apology today. 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."
 
Why fake it? Apparently, the FEMA briefing was called with little lead-time and reporters didn't get there fast enough. Instead of acknowledging that reporters were not there they apparently pretended and even used the typical practice of calling a "last question."

The briefer, FEMA's Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson, did not indicate that the questions were coming from staff who were in essence playing reporters. Six questions were asked and the phrasing and subject matter were not typical for a news briefing give and take.

Senior administration officials are looking into the matter and suggest the "intentions were good," but acknowledge that was not an appropriate "tactic." 

The suggestion is that so many media questions had been coming in to FEMA and the briefing was a way to get information out. But instead of transparency, a senior FEMA official appears to have faked it.

Below are the actual questions and excerpted responses from Johnson:
QUESTION 1: What type of commodities are you pledging to California?
"So I think we're well ahead of the requirement and we'll be able to make sure that all the shelters that are stood up are, in fact, all sustained and have sufficient materials and quantities of commodities to make sure they meet the demand of the people who might seek shelter."
 
QUESTION 2: Sir, there are a number of reports that people weren't heeding evacuation orders and that was hindering emergency responders. Can you speak a little to that, please?
"So I think you're seeing more compliance and more conformance with expected norms of travel."
 
QUESTION 3: Can you address a little bit what it means to have the president issue an emergency declaration, as opposed to a major disaster declaration? What does that mean for FEMA?
"As an emergency declaration, it allows us to provide -- to open up the Stafford Act and to provide the full range of protective measures and all the things that they need now in order to address the fire, If the governor had asked for a major declaration, that would have talked about individual assistance and public assistance at greater levels. And at this point, the governor has not asked for that."
 
QUESTION 4: Sir, we understand the secretary and the administrator of FEMA are on their way out there. What is their objective? And is there anyone else traveling with them?
"..all the key leaders who are directing this effort and demonstrating a partnership through their effort will be out there at San Diego this afternoon. So I think it's a good demonstration of support, recognizing that our role is not to usurp the state but to support the state. And they'll demonstrate that by their presence."

[Off-camera voice asks for another question)

QUESTION 5: Are you happy with FEMA's response, so far?
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. 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."
 
[Staff voice off camera: Last question.]

QUESTION: What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?
"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 local governments are performing, look at how well we're working together between state and federal partners."

Here's FEMA's statement from Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson:
STATEMENT
October 26, 2007

STATEMENT IN REGARDS TO FEMA'S TUESDAY PRESS BRIEFING
FEMA's goal is 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. We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent.

At FEMA, our focus is disaster operations and, in this case, it means working closely with the State of California to support their response to the devastating fires. We're committed to being there for the State and being good partners. In working to do so we did not put enough focus on how we communicate to the public.

The real story -- how well the response and recovery elements are working in this disaster -- should not be lost because of how we tried to meet the needs of the media in distributing facts.

We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment.

### END OF STATEMENT # # #

FEMA had given reporters about 15 minutes notice ahead of the conference.