When FEMA announced this Tuesday, October 23rd , with only fifteen minutes warning, that it would conduct a news conference for the California wildfires, no members of the press were able to physically attend.
So, faced with an empty house, desperate for a good review, and holding a script too good to waste, it did the only logical thing:
FEMA put on a show.
Drafting its press officers to pose as reporters, Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson conducted a Q & A session with scripted questions, allowing him the opportunity to do a little bragging while informing the public.
BBC: "I'm very happy with Fema's response," Mr Johnson said in reply to one query from an employee.
From USA Today:
"Here's a sampling of the questions:
QUESTION: Sir, there are a number of reports that people weren't heeding evacuation orders and that was hindering emergency responders. Can you speak a little to that, please?
QUESTION: Can you address a little bit what it means to have the president issue an emergency declaration, as opposed to a major disaster declaration? What does that (inaudible) for FEMA?
QUESTION: Sir, we understand the secretary and the administrator of FEMA are on their way out there. What is their objective? And is there anyone else traveling with them?
STAFF: Last question.
QUESTION: What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?"
You can feel the eagerness in the FEMA performance, and you've got to give them credit for their spirit. Watching Johnson was reminiscent of the archetypal downtrodden theater kid who just has to get back on his high school stage and prove he's got what it takes, no matter that the last show was a disaster.
The only flaw was that an actual reporter from The Washington Post was listening on the phone during the production, suspicions were aroused, and pretty soon the jig was up.
The Department for Homeland Security has criticized and distanced itself from FEMA on Friday the 26th after the details of the charade came to light, stating that it had no knowledge of the fake press conference beforehand.
Deputy Chief Johnson, hangdog drama-kid to the bitter end, promised to do better next time.
But all was not a total waste.
Though the outcome was not an intentional one, FEMA's farce did take a dramatic step over a very important and ominous line, and in doing so it delivered to the American people this surreal and almost Zen-like spectacle: An agency of the United States Government, having "press conferences" with itself without any press, questioning itself, praising itself, to itself.
Actors played every role in what was supposed to have been a transparent connection between a government and its people, poignantly echoing something Kurt Vonnegut said once:
"The American People are not a people anymore; they are an audience."
In this instance, literally.