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SPJ leaders call FEMA-staged news briefing an abuse of public trust

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NOTE: In an amazing bit of synchronicity, the following news release came in hours after a posting on lack of FEMA and Congressional support in the post-Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans. The rabbit hole runs deep, and given the duplicity of the agency at a press conference earlier this week, it is no wonder that the people of New Orleans are still on their knees.

This writer is a member of The Society of Professional Journalists.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Oct. 23 press conference in southern California, where agency employees posed as news reporters, was a blatant abuse of public trust, leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists said this week.

As wildfires raged throughout parts of Southern California, and citizens were looking to the government for detailed accounts of the situation, FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey E. Johnson hosted a 1 p.m. news briefing where members of the media were given a 15-minute notice of the event. Given the circumstances of the crisis and the agency’s unwillingness to wait for professional reporters to come to FEMA offices, few credentialed media members attended the event. FEMA’s solution? Reporters were given a toll-free, listen-only number to call.

A live broadcast of the staged briefing was carried on Fox News, MSNBC and other stations. Before a group of FEMA employees posing as news reporters, Johnson answered a few questions about shipments of supplies to the area and how the agency was dealing with residents who refused to leave. Other questions explained the difference between an emergency declaration and a major disaster declaration signed by the president. The last question, as determined by FEMA Press Secretary Aaron Walker, asked if Johnson was pleased with FEMA’s response and whether the agency learned anything from Katrina. Johnson said he was very pleased and that the agency had the benefit of experience, good leadership and good partnerships, none of which were present during Katrina.

“It was an abuse of the public trust, plain and simple,” said SPJ National President Clint Brewer. “FEMA likely had no actual, real reporters at their press conference because of poor planning and a mere 15 minutes notice. The government should be honest with the American people about such things. What would the government have to say if reporters began impersonating federal employees?”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit

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Clint Brewer, President, (615) 301-9229,
Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 927-8000, ext. 211

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)

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