Public Relations Disaster Management
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.
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)washpost.com.
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