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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Lessons Learned: FEMA Staff Ask the Questions at FEMA “Press Briefing”


Our thanks to Washington Post columnist Al Kamen for unearthing some curious goings-on at Tuesday’s hurriedly called “press briefing” about FEMA’s response to the southern California wildfires. The briefing was broadcast by Fox News and MSNBC as if it were an authentic briefing before actual news reporters.

Deputy administrator Vice Admiral Harvey E. Johnson praised his “very smoothly, very efficiently performing team.” (For the sake of the Californians, we hope he’s right.) “And so I think what you’re 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.” (Thanks for reminding us.)

Reporters were given only 15 minutes’ notice, making it unlikely that they would have time to get to FEMA’s southwest D.C. offices before the presser ended. “They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a ‘listen only’ line, the notice said—no questions.” But that’s not the best part.

It turns out that the “reporters” asking the softball questions were in fact FEMA’s own PR staffers. “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” asked one. Another asked about the “lessons learned from Katrina.”

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.

Deputy director of public affairs “Mike” Widomski told Kamen that despite the very short notice, “ ‘we were expecting the press to come,’ . . . but they didn’t. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like the real thing.”

Kamen does not mention whether former White House correspondent Jeff Gannon of Talon News was among the reporters.

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