Smoke and Mirrors

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

I received a very unusual phone call yesterday. It was a Bush administration official, apologizing.

With what seemed like genuine contrition, R. David Paulison, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was calling to say that some of his subordinates had apparently lost their minds last week when they decided to hold a televised press conference about the California fires without actually including any reporters.

Instead, the agency had some of its employees impersonate journalists and pose in chairs before a podium at FEMA headquarters in Washington.

"I'll be glad to take some of your questions," said FEMA's deputy administrator, Harvey Johnson.

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" one staffer asked.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson replied."The report basically is that were doing a fine, doing a pretty good job."

And so on. With this charade, which one television network broadcast to an unknowing nation, the agency that so badly bungled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made sure to put its best face forward as California's hills burned. Without, of course, any pesky reporters to bring up unwelcome comparisons to FEMA's poor performance in New Orleans and the Gulf coast.

When Johnson's acting effort was exposed for the sham that it was, much of the outrage that followed brought up not only FEMA's habit of shooting itself in the foot but other instances in which Bush administration officials have tried to make end runs around the press.

As the New York Times reported two years ago, the federal government has aggressively produced dozens of "prepackaged, ready-to-serve news reports" that are in reality public-relations pitches, all designed to make the administration's policies look good.

"In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments," the story said."Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production."

You'll also recall the revelations that" a handful of columnists wrote in support of administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments from the government."

People in the administration seem not to have learned that the worst thing you can do for your credibility is lie. Because that's what this is.

In the FEMA case, there's no evidence that anyone at the White House knew this pantomime was going on. And even Paulison, the FEMA chief, maintains quite credibly that the phony press conference was the work of underlings operating below his radar.

"I don't know what they were thinking," he told me on the phone. "I don't know whether their brain cells died for an hour, or what. It killed all the good work we did in California."

Either way, he said, "It's not going to happen again."

Except that it probably will, somewhere, before Bush's people shuffle off in January 2009.

Marie Cocco, whose column is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, writes today that the the Bush administration "has not yet surpassed that of Richard Nixon's in its contempt for a free press and its unrelenting war on the truth."

But the FEMA fakery, she says, "isn't just spin... it's government-sponsored propaganda."

Even now, Cocco goes on, "an army of administration officials and their allies in the conservative media are recklessly promoting the idea that the United States... has almost no choice but to bomb Iran for its presumed pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities."

When the Chinese and others practice such deception, she says, 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."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan