The Media Made Us Do It – FEMA’s Fake Press Conference

So, by now everyone knows about FEMA’s fake press conference last week where the agency’s PR staff pretended to be objective reporters asking questions. While I suppose I’m not surprised by the action of it, I am stunned by the stupidity in FEMA’s apology for it, which in essence blames the media for their deception. (continues below)

What’s more troubling is the (and I hate to use the word) trend we are seeing in fake reporters, fake press conferences, fake VNRs, fake message board posts and bloggers.

With the Internet comes great advantages: gaining real insights into consumer thinking outside the traditional focus group; creative viral campaigns that capture the imagination of the general public, investigative reporting that can really dive into the story. But, we are also at risk of losing our integrity as we travel down the rabbit hole of anonymity.

The greatest tip-off that strange things were afoot at the FEMA press room came when folks actually listened to the questions being asked. Among my favorites: “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” This, along, with the lengthy answers given by Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson, caused observers to do the proverbial Scooby double take.

The part that gets me is that FEMA is now claiming the questions their people asked came from genuine media inquiries. According to Mike Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs for Fema, “Staff did not make up the questions and Johnson did not know what he was going to be asked. We pulled questions from those we had been getting from reporters earlier in the day.”

I realize we are living in a time of softball interviews and the follow-up question seems to have gone the way of privacy protection. But, there is no way any reporter would ever ask if someone is happy with their own work! It’s a waste of breath and any real reporter would be laughed out of the room on that one.

I’ve also noted that FEMA is blaming the media for not showing up and claiming they simply “wanted to meet media needs in a timely manner.” Considering that the media were banned from asking questions (According to FEMA’s own media alert: a toll-free telephone line is available for reporters to listen to the proceedings, but not to pose any questions), it is quite clear FEMA’s intentions had nothing to do with the media’s needs.

In my mind, the apology sounds like an abusive husband telling his woman, “I’m sorry you made me hit you.” Bascially FEMA is saying, media didn’t show up so we had to pretend they were there.

While reporters have certainly taken FEMA to task on the initial fakery – once again, folks are simply printing the apology and no one seems to be asking the follow-up question. No one is asking: why did you do it? Okay – nobody showed up in the 15 minute window FEMA gave press–they still didn’t have to stage a PC. They certainly didn’t have to use the old “last question” line. They could have simply issued their statement and been done with it.

And, I’m not just coming down on FEMA here. This fake reporter tactic is being used all-too-often these days and across all beats.

How many people here remember Columbia Pictures’ David Manning of the Ridgefield Press? He was a made-up movie critic who had issued glowing reviews of several films for nearly a year. His quotes were used in the movie ads and even repeated by other movie critics. It wasn’t until he called Rob Schnieder’s The Animal “a winner” did anyone think – “who is this guy?” It was then discovered that he was in fact John Horn, a marketing executive for the studio.

A more recent example is from a January 2005 press conference where President Bush called on Jeff Gannon to pose a question. Gannon claimed to be from the Talon News and then asked a loaded question that labeled Democrats as being “divorced from reality.” It was later revealed that Gannon (not his real name) was in fact not a reporter at all but was a part of the GOP publicity machine – his role was to write the GOP press releases. Although media did cover this news, explaining that he was a fake reporter from a fake news organization. No one seemed to ask how this fake reporter secured press credentials in the most sought-after room the free world has to offer. To this day, the only media who seem to have really covered it at all are bloggers.

I believe we’re going to start seeing more of the “old school” journalistic integrity in bloggers as the Internet continues to blur the lines between news and campaigning. In the meantime, take it all — and I mean all of it — with a big bag of Mortons!

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