FEMA's phony reporters

The agency fakes a press conference.

Published October 26, 2007 4:05PM (EDT)

Given what sometimes passes for journalism in Washington, it may have been just as well ... but did the folks at the Federal Emergency Management Agency really think it would be a good idea to have FEMA employees pose as reporters and ask softball questions during a FEMA press briefing on the California fires this week?

Well, yes, it appears that they did. And now that they've been caught, they still do.

As the Washington Post's Al Kamen reports, at least three and maybe four FEMA public relations staffers asked questions of FEMA deputy administrator Harvey Johnson during what was billed as a news briefing Tuesday. Fox and MSNBC both carried parts of the briefing live, apparently with no mention -- probably because they didn't know -- that the reporters asking questions weren't actually reporters at all.

Mike Widomski, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, was one of the phony reporters and seems to be entirely untroubled by the episode. He tells Kamen: "If the worst thing that happens to me in this disaster is that we had staff in the chairs to ask questions that reporters had been asking all day -- trust me, I'll be happy."

Update: FEMA issued a statement this afternoon saying that it is "reviewing" its "press procedures" to ensure that its future communications are "straightforward and transparent." "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," the agency says. "We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment."

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said that the White House didn't know about the phony briefing before it happened and does not approve of the concept. "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," Perino said. "It's not something I would have condoned."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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