The Sad Truth About FEMA’s Phony Presser

The Internets are bursting with spluttering, red-faced rants flogging the public servants at FEMA, who staged a phony press conference about the California wildfires and answered fake questions from agency employees posing as reporters. Was it a monumentally boneheaded thing to do? Sure. Should they not have done it? You bet.

Even so, you have to give these people at least a little credit. Unlike other federal agencies, which are dens of infighting and backbiting, FEMA's very special employees pulled together in a crisis. The playtime press conference involved a bunch of FEMA officials—one pretending to be the briefer, others playing reporters, another guy manning the sound. At most other workplaces the whole scheme would have fallen apart under the weight of internal bickering and naysaying. One guy would be bellyaching about how they were all going to get fired if anyone found out; another would moan about how it was unethical or possibly illegal; a third would complain it was a stupid, stupid idea, and warn they'd never get away with it. At FEMA they didn't fall prey to that kind of negative thinking. The agency motto—"There's no I in FEMA"—is deeply ingrained. In a less cynical time this level of esprit de corps might have been considered refreshing. At least the government had the good sense to house all of these people in one relatively obscure agency, where they can't do much harm. Imagine, for instance, what could happen if the Defense Department employed officials with that kind of poor judgment.

As it turns out, the fake press conference wasn't all that different from a real press conference. Take a look at some of the questions the fake reporters lobbed at the fake briefer:

Good question! If this had been a real press conference, you can bet a real reporter would have asked that. One of the most dangerous problems emergency responders face is the person who insists on toughing it out and has to be rescued, at great peril, later.

Good question! Do you know the answer? If not, is it something you'd like to know if your house was in the path of the fire? (By the way, here's the fake briefer's answer: "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. And so as this fire continues to evolve, as the implications are made known, the governor may reconsider and ask for additional assistance from the federal government." Thanks for the clear, succinct info, make-believe briefer!)

Really good question! You can be sure a real reporter would have asked that one, since everyone has been comparing the way the administration is handling the fires to its Katrina response. The answer was pretty good too: "…if you take a look at Katrina, where there really was no leaning forward, really, there really was not a fabric of federal partners where there wasn't good, smooth communication between the governor and the administrator of FEMA, the governor and the president. To see all the federal partners linked together, pre-scripting mission assignments, having contracts in place, following a game plan—we didn't do any of those kinds of things in Katrina." The fake briefer goes on to ladle heaps of self-serving praise on FEMA and the great job it's doing, but that would have happened at a real press conference.

Okay, now that one was just greedy. No reporter would toss an embarrassing softball like that at a real press conference.

The reason the fake press conference seemed so real is that real press conferences are often so fake. A lot of the time they are time-wasters. Briefers come into the room with an officially approved set of facts to dispense, and the most talented ones don't stray beyond the script no matter how hard the reporters try to trip them up. And reporters, competing for scoops, often don't ask the briefers questions they really want the answers to, because the room is full of other reporters.

The fake FEMA press conference simply swapped a laborious, outmoded kind of theater for a quick, efficient one. The fake questions were short and simple and elicited the same limited information the briefer would have given real reporters anyway, without having to go through the extended cat-and-mouse routine. But then they had to go and ruin a promising new art form by trying to pass it off as real. FEMA gave real reporters only 15 minutes' notice about the press conference. As a result, none of them could show up. So the agency gave them a phone number to call so they could listen in to the fake reporters, but not ask real questions themselves. Instead of defrauding the American people, they might have simply rescheduled the press conference for a time when reporters could show up. Of course, that's easy to say now, hindsight being 20-20 and all. Put in the same difficult position, how many of you can honestly say you would have had the presence of mind to think of that? OK, all of you. But still.

At least you can say this about the FEMA thespians: even though they knowingly perpetrated a fraud—in one of the highlights of the event, a fake official warns the fake reporters that there will be time for only two more questions—they did it with integrity. The fake reporters didn't let the briefer know in advance what questions they were going to ask him. That would have been dishonest.