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Public Relations Disaster Management

Posted on Oct 30, 2007

By Marie Cocco

WASHINGTON—Though time will certainly tell, the Bush administration so far has not yet surpassed that of Richard Nixon’s in its contempt for a free press and its unrelenting war on the truth. Its latest miscarriage of misinformation—a fake “press conference” run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update the country on the California wildfires—doesn’t match Nixon’s inclusion of disfavored journalists on an “enemies list” to be targeted with wiretaps and tax audits.

    Yet the FEMA fiasco does fit in neatly with the Bush pattern of duplicity, secrecy and possible lawbreaking in its public relations. And it works. That is, until someone catches them in the act.

    In this case, as fires consumed thousands of homes in Southern California, left hundreds of thousands homeless and at least seven dead, FEMA officials—eager not to convey information but to burnish the blackened image the agency earned with its response to Hurricane Katrina—decided to call what it billed as a news conference. But it gave actual reporters too little time to get to the event, and set them up instead on a telephone conference line on which they could listen but were barred from asking questions.

    The queries instead came from FEMA employees, who offered such piercing inquiries as this: “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” To which FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey E. Johnson replied: “I’m very happy with FEMA’s response so far.”

    The phony news conference was carried live on some cable television news stations, complete with the official trappings—the podium, the FEMA seal used as a backdrop. A sign-language interpreter gestured diligently as Johnson spoke. The sham would probably have worked if not for The Washington Post, which exposed the agency a few days after the faux news conference was held.


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    It has now been roundly condemned by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and White House press secretary Dana Perino, who assures us that of course, fake news conferences are “not a practice that we would employ here at the White House.”

    And you want to believe her. If only the facts did not get in the way.

    This is no isolated incident but only the latest in a series of scandals involving the Bush administration and its manufacturing of “news.” Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration had violated a law against “covert propaganda” by paying conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to praise the No Child Left Behind Act in his columns and television appearances. The GAO also said the law was broken when the administration used public funds to pay a public relations company to analyze the media to determine if it carried the message: “The Bush administration/the GOP is committed to education.”

    Government money also was used to produce prepackaged video “news releases” featuring a phony reporter who praised both the Bush education policies and the Medicare drug benefit. Some news stations used the videos without disclosing they were produced by the government.

    Like its forerunners, the FEMA fakery isn’t just spin but something worse. It’s government-sponsored propaganda. When the Chinese and other global miscreants practice it, we condemn it. When the Bush administration does it, it seems to blend into the background of disinformation and outright untruths that have damaged the president’s credibility at home and, more ominously, overseas.

    Even now, an army of administration officials and their allies in the conservative media are recklessly promoting the idea that the United States and indeed, the world, have almost no choice but to bomb Iran for its presumed pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities. The drumbeat is an eerie reprise of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, when anyone who countered the administration’s apocalyptic vision of a “mushroom cloud” originating from Baghdad was vilified as a hapless wimp, or worse, a terrorist sympathizer.

    While its ramifications are not nearly so dire, the FEMA imbroglio shares this hallmark with so many other Bush administration media gambits: It reveals a complete insensitivity to the dangers and devastating losses experienced by the people directly touched by tragedy. Thousands of Southern Californians are experiencing an unimaginable upheaval. They’ve lost their homes, their businesses, their jobs, their neighborhoods.

    The reality of this loss is itself discredited by FEMA’s phoniness, and this arrogant agency has again discredited itself.     

    Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)   

    © 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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By tsaoyen, November 1, 2007 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment

The sham news conference was a “Freudian slip”  that accurately and inadvertently revealed the nature of the Bush Administration.

The whole government - just about every branch - seems to be an embarrassment and farce.

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By rodney, October 31, 2007 at 4:58 am Link to this comment
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When Bush speaks to the media and the American people he tells us the lie the whole lie and nothing but the lie.

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By thomas billis, October 30, 2007 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment
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What is the difference?Do you really think the morons in the media would have asked any better questions?You mentioned the run up to war boy the media was all over that story like paid lackeys of the administration.A small oulet McClatchy newspapers got it right and the media that was not at the fake press conference got it wrong.You are missing the big picture.Our media sucks to put it bluntly.You can take it as a given that the Bush administration could screw up a wet dream.Yet they have controlled this media like an old time plantation owner with slaves.Nixon 10 times smarter than Bush never had this type control over the media.Ms Cocco go back and check or ask reporters from that era.I cringe to think what evil Nixon or Kissinger could accomplish today with the complete control over the media that exists in our society today.

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By Louise, October 30, 2007 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

“WASHINGTON—Though time will certainly tell, the Bush administration so far has not yet surpassed that of Richard Nixon’s in its contempt for a free press and its unrelenting war on the truth.”

Marie! Where were you during the Nixon era? In Kindergarten?

My dear, Bush surpassed Nixon’s contempt for the media years ago! Probably before he even moved into the White House!

While your article is good, and factual, there is ONE thing missing.


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By scurvybro, October 30, 2007 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment

I caught a redundancy that must have been overlooked in the editing process: “conservative media.”

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By James, October 30, 2007 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment
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I agree with Ocjim, Bush is way worse than Nixon, because it’s true: The corporate media doesn’t NEED to be threatened by the President directly for the most part. The owners of those News corps. are all too happy to control, can and threaten reporters for him.

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By Greg, October 30, 2007 at 10:47 am Link to this comment
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Don’t forget Jeff Gannon

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By rodney, October 30, 2007 at 10:42 am Link to this comment
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Bush doesn’t worry about the media because for the most part he controls it.Most reporters refused to ask him tough questions and when he doesn’t answer the question he isn’t held to account. The lack of any investigative reporting, and the large media conglomerates allows for less scrutiny of Bushes policies. Then there’s fox news, Sean Hannity,Rush Limbaugh,Ann Colter.Bill O Racist,the lying Dana Perino,Tony Snow Job and a large host of other spin miesters who lie, deceive, and distort the truth to the American people. How do you think we wound up in Iraq? And by the way, the spin machines are working to get us into Iran. Nixon had reason to worry, we had reporters who wanted the truth and not just the news stories for ratings. But the own powerful spin machine that call itself a media today are the corporate cronies of Bush.

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By ocjim, October 30, 2007 at 7:42 am Link to this comment

Marie, I can’t believe you are comparing Bush’s relationship with a corporate-dominated media to Nixon’s relationship to an entirely different media, a media not owned by giant corporations like Viacom, Disney, Fox, and GE. We are talking about a different world today. Bush doesn’t need to battle a media that used his manipulated news like its manna from the sky. A year ago the Post wouldn’t have bothered to expose Bush.

The jury is in. Bush is much worse and much more corrupt than Nixon. Besides Nixon, in spite of it all, had some integrity.

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By mary, October 30, 2007 at 7:26 am Link to this comment

It’s clear this Admin is full of the most incompetent people ever!
It’s so bad, anyone who has to list this job on their resume should find it impossible to get a job.  I still hold out hope journalists will get sick and tired of the puppet strings and break away from the contrived news they’ve forced on us for so long.  There’s got to be someone with some level of integrity for news reporting, someone feeling responsible for this mess.  Just because the American people stopped demanding the truth doesn’t mean these guys can continue with their lies.  We should all start looking at what we can do as individuals to demand better.  Start with getting to know your local and state reps.  Get to know those who operate your local news media and papers. Better yet, let them get to know you. Remember, we’re not far from being eliminated as a middle class.  If that happens, we will never get it back…...

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