October 27, 2007

A Response Like No Other

I have worked in the TV news business for almost eight years. In that time, I have never seen a staged press conference like FEMA put on Tuesday:
FEMA announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters about 15 minutes before it was to begin Tuesday afternoon, making it unlikely that reporters could attend. Instead, FEMA set up a telephone conference line so reporters could listen.

In the briefing, parts of which were televised live by cable news channels, [FEMA's deputy administrator Harvey] Johnson stood behind a lectern, called on questioners who did not disclose that they were FEMA employees, and gave replies emphasizing that his agency's response to this week's California wildfires was far better than its response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
A press conference is itself a staged event, completely controlled by the people standing behind the podium. They choose the topic, they choose who to let in, they choose who may ask questions, and they even choose which questions will be answered.

But, at least the reporters who ask questions at a press conference don’t already know the answers. They are truly seeking information they don’t have. And, as that information is revealed question by question, answer by answer, it always leads to new questions, and eventually – in theory – leads to the story which must be told.

Those FEMA employees were asking questions that *they already knew the answers to*. Despite their noble intentions, they were doing no more than acting.

Then there’s this:
FEMA employees posed as reporters while real reporters listened on a telephone conference line and were barred from asking questions.
The reporters could not ask questions on the conference call? Does FEMA’s Southwest Washington headquarters not have a speaker phone? A simple email could have gotten the same information out, without the pretend questions.

I can only assume that FEMA’s purpose for the fake press conference – you can not have a real “press” conference without the press there – was for public relations. They wanted the public to see them doing a press conference. A simple email would not have accomplished this.

Why do this? If FEMA’s purpose is to clean their reputation after a disastrous disaster response to Katrina, then an effective response to the wildfires will not do it. With all respect and due empathy to the Southern Californians whose lives have been altered by the fires, the comparisons to Katrina are cosmetic, just like FEMA’s fake press conference. The wildfires are their own disaster, not another Katrina.

The numbers just don’t reach Katrina proportions. This example does it for me: As of last night, more than 1,800 homes were destroyed by the wildfires. As of last night, more than two years after Katrina, there are still more than 1,800 hurricane-damaged homes in New Orleans yet to be demolished.

If you want to know more about FEMA's response like no other, they have a page on their website.

ADDED: While that one statistic does it for me, if you need more, the T-P has it.

1 comment:

Pistolette said...

I completely agree. The comparisons are absurd. I'd like to see how long the Qualcomm crew would have held it together if they were locked inside the stadium in the dark surrounded by putrid water, with no power, no running water, and no funtioning bathrooms - in 100 degree heat.

FEMA could not handle that situation if it happened again today, and they are making asses out of themselves in Cali.