The controversy over a fake news conference flared up this week after the Federal Emergency Management Agency official who oversaw the event lost his job. John Philbin was supposed to leave his job as FEMA’s external affairs director and become head of public affairs for Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell on Monday, but he was denied the job after presiding over a staged event last week in which a half dozen FEMA employees posed as reporters and asked a high-ranking FEMA official softball questions about the response to California wildfires as real journalists listened by telephone.
What the commentators said
It would be nice to be able to accept the Bush administration’s apologies, chalk this up to a “mental lapse,” and move on, said Leonard Pitts in The Miami Herald (free registration). But this is just “the latest of many examples of the Bush administration manipulating news and information.” This White House routinely censors science, has paid a “supposed journalist” to say good things about its No Child Left Behind policy, and produced promotional videos “disguised as news.” Any more of this nonsense and the administration will render “government’s word worthless.”
“The fake press conference was absolutely the worst way to handle a public trust issue following the agency's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago,” said the International Falls, Minn., Daily Journal in an editorial. It’s understandable that FEMA wanted to “cast a good light” on its handling of the fires to show that it had taken the Katrina lessons to heart. FEMA leaders have apologized and said they were merely trying to get information out so quickly that they staged the event with 15 minutes’ notice—not enough time for real reporters to get there. But the agency’s “good intentions” only did “more damage” to its reputation.
This just goes to show that FEMA is still the same collection of bungling bureaucrats that stumbled during Katrina, said the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times in an editorial. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the event “one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government,” and “that sums it up nicely.” People depend on FEMA for “rescue in their time of need. They should be able to count on timely responses to tough questions about ongoing relief efforts.”