Homeland Security slams FEMA for staging fake wildfire news conference

From USAToday:

Original posting at 11:56 a.m. ET: Those weren’t reporters questioning the deputy chief of FEMA earlier this week, they were federal employees playing the role of journalists during a televised briefing on the wildfires in southern California.

An agency spokesman tells The Washington Post that they didn’t have time to wait for real reporters to come to their office near the U.S. Capitol. “We had been getting mobbed with phone calls from reporters, and this was thrown together at the last minute,”  Mike Widomski, FEMA’s deputy director of public affairs, tells the paper.

So, instead of waiting for outsiders to come to their offices, the P.R. people just turned on the cameras and tossed softballs to their boss. That may be why Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson found it so easy to answer the questions, according to the Post. (A philosophical question: If the press doesn’t come to your press conference did you really hold a press conference?)

Here’s a sampling of the questions:

QUESTION: 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?

QUESTION: 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 (inaudible) for FEMA?

QUESTION: 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?

STAFF: Last question.

QUESTION: What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?

Update at 3:01 p.m. ET: FEMA just issued an apology. “FEMA’s goal is to get information out as soon as possible, and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment,” the agency says in a statement attributed to Johnson. “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.”

USA TODAY’s Mimi Hall reports that officials at the Homeland Security Department aren’t happy about FEMA’s follies. “This is inexcusable to the secretary,” spokeswoman Laura Keehner says.

She describes the incident as a lapse in judgment, but says “stunts such as this will not be tolerated” and notes that “the senior leadership of the department is taking this very seriously.”

“This is offensive, inexcusable,” she says.

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