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Fox News and MSNBC tag-teamed the other day in a wacky, zany comedy contest against “Saturday Night Live.”
Final score: FNC & MSNBC 1, “SNL” 0. The triumph came when the 24/7 cable news channels aired a live comedy program that the trained professional comedians at “Saturday Night Live” could not possibly match.
Live from FEMA — it’s Tuesday afternoon!
The FEMA Follies, live but certainly not Improv, aired on Fox News Channel and MSNBC a couple of Tuesdays ago, starring none other than that king o’ comedy himself, retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson Jr. He is deputy director of the famed agency that is in charge of responding to disasters — the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This all began when FEMA decided to convene a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 23, because it finally had some good news to announce: In the tragedy of the Southern California wildfires, FEMA hadn’t done anything wrong yet.
Now you are probably thinking this doesn’t seem funny. But you always underestimate FEMA. Some bright bulb at FEMA no doubt realized that a press conference would be attended by journalists, a species harder to herd than cats. What if a journalist asked something off-script and negative? (Like about those toxic trailers FEMA gave to more than 100,000 of New Orleans’ neediest. The people got sick because, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the trailers contained 100 times more formaldehyde than is considered safe. Formaldehyde, smormaldehyde — why always harp on the negative?)
Happily, FEMA’s bright bulb lit up with the perfect solution: A No-Press Press Conference. Just fake it. Use FEMA bureaucrats to play the roles of reporters — just like the comedy pros always do on “Saturday Night Live”
But what if a real journalist shows up at the FEMA conference and bollixed the whole beeswax? FEMA thinks of everything. They announced the press conference just 15 minutes before beginning it and gave Washington’s real journalists the option: Hike to FEMA or just sit at their desks, sipping frappes and lattes and listening on a conference phone call. FEMA said the reporters could listen but not ask questions; the Washington reporters said, hey, no problem. Then FEMA offered a satellite feed of what it called its press conference to the we-shovel-all cable news and outfoxed Fox and MSNBC. Both rushed to telecast live the whatever-it-was.
Live on both channels, FEMA’s bureaucrats-gone-wild asked their boss questions that had all the sting of a lash with a wet noodle:
“Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”
“What type of commodities are you expecting in California?”
“Can you address a little bit what it means to have the president issue an emergency declaration as opposed to a major-disaster declaration?”
And this hard-hitting two-parter: “Sir, we understand the secretary (Homeland Security’s Michael Chertof) and the administrator of FEMA (OK, I had to look it up; Brownie’s virtually anonymous successor is David Paulison) are on their way out there. What is their objective and is anyone else traveling with them?”
Johnson hit them out of the park!
“I think we have a good team coming together …”
“The Red Cross stepped up to the plate in a very big way …”
“Good messaging from the mayor in San Diego; good messaging from the regional authorities in California …”
Bad messaging from FEMA. As the deputy director called on the “reporters,” sometimes by name, I could not help thinking: What the heck is he thinking?
Later, when the defrauding truth oozed out, the Bush White House appropriately condemned FEMA’s folly. On Oct. 27, four days after that fake presser, John P. Philbin, who had been FEMA’s director of external affairs, took the rap in The Washington Post: “It was absolutely a bad decision. I regret it happened. Certainly … I should have stopped it. I hope readers understand we’re working very hard to establish credibility and integrity, and I would hope this does not undermine it.”
But before you could say, “Philbie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” it turned out he really wasn’t. Two days before the Post published his comments, Philbin had fled FEMA for a primo job — chief of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the outfit that must at all times outthink America’s enemies.
You couldn’t make this stuff up. Then again, you don’t have to. They always do.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)