Heckuva Job

Peter Maer is a White House correspondent for CBS News.
Following a week that has seen the administration boast that "lessons learned," from the Hurricane Katrina debacle, were being applied to the California fire response, The Federal Emergency Management Agency--FEMA finds its credibility at issue.

The nation's disaster response office has been caught in something of a public relations disaster that raises questions about its integrity. FEMA is once again on the defensive for staging what turned out to be a phony news conference.

On Tuesday, with just 15 minutes notice, the agency notified Washington reporters about a news conference on the California fire disaster. Reporters unable to make it that quickly were instructed to call a listen-only phone line to hear the session with Deputy Administrator Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson. Reporters who called the number were unaware that top FEMA staffers played the role of journalists asking Johnson about their own agency's performance. Among the "hard-hitting" questions:"Are you happy with FEMA'S response so far?" Showing that he was up to the challenge, Johnson replied, "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far." The "news conference" was carried live on cable news networks. CBS News reported on it.

After the Washington Post revealed the faux event, FEMA issued a statement noting, "We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgement." The written statement said that in working to support California's response to the devastating fires, the agency "did not put enough focus on how we communicate with the public." FEMA promised to review "press procedures" and to "make necessary changes."

The White House communications team said it was unaware of the bogus news conference until the published report surfaced. Press Secretary Dana Perino said she did not know of or condone the pretend news conference.

Credibility is the coin for reporters and government officials.

Heckuva job, FEMA.

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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.