Saturday, October 27, 2007

It's OK -- I'm a Reporter!


Now it can be told: Almost every day in my reporting career I felt like a phony.

It was easy to feel inadequate. I worked with people who got shot at -- hell, shot -- and whose gifts with even the words "to," "at" and "the" were positively Shakespearean.

Without any credentials other than a wire service generalist's bravado I reported on medical breakthroughs, nuanced court rulings and world championship boxing. Let's just say the cramming skills I honed as an undergraduate served me well.

But at the FEMA briefing this week I would have been the only pro in the room. Not even a genuine journalist shill was present. Real reporters could listen in on a hastily-arranged "800" line, but couldn't ask any questions. No, the only people doing any talking, the Washington Post tells us, were FEMA employees: some pitching softballs, and the other one hitting them out of the park.

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" somebody asked.
"I am very happy with FEMA's response so far," responded Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr.

What was FEMA thinking? We'll probably never know. The propaganda value was so press-release pedestrian it is hard to imagine it was part of a malicious plan to conceal inconvenient truths. The platitudinous PR spins included such exchanges as this:
"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" somebody asked.
"I am very happy with FEMA's response so far," responded Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr.
Yes. Must get that message out -- at any cost.

A Casablanca Moment

That is the sort of question that won't get asked by real reporters, unless it's to set up a Perry Mason moment. But when even the White House and the Department of Homeland Security criticize a lame attempt to shape the message you know that what you have witnessed is instead a Casablanca moment.

And it was all going so very well.

In its response to the California wildfires, FEMA didn't suck this time. To hear President Bush, though, the big difference was a governor taking the initiative, not the heedlessness of hand-picked administration incompetents doing a heckofa job of ignoring 48 hours of non-stop TV coverage of death and destruction.

As usual the stew for this boneheadedness might be the slow but steady blurring of a line between self-aggrandizing partisan advocacy and journalism. It has long become commonplace for advertisers to adopt the look-and-feel of news reporting. Infomercials use ersatz interviews to try to convince viewers that what they are seeing is unscripted give-and take instead of two-fisted shoveling. Newspapers and magazines routinely accept special ad sections that are laid out like the publications themselves.

But even though these Wizard of Oz contrivances flourish it is one thing to sell get-rich-quick real estate schemes to insomniacs at 4 am and another to bamboozle the electorate. Especially when they are starting to like you -- really, really like you! -- again.

Ignorance Won't Work This Time

So is it possible the PAOtards at FEMA really had no idea they were crossing a line? FEMA Director of Current Affairs John "Pat" Philbin is no Michael Brown, who had no background in emergency relief. No, Philbin's extensive education and professional life has been all about public relations and communications.

Philbin, who asked one of the six questions, says he knows he should have stopped department #2 Johnson's countenance of staff-fed questions with no disclosure.

But, as it happens, this is an easy sword for him to fall on. Turns out Philbin's last day on the job anyway was going to be Thursday -- three days after the fateful "news" conference. His next gig? Head of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Washington Post reports.

Oh my.

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