Media outlets uncritically reported White House claim that it does not "employ" fake reporting

Media outlets uncritically reported White House claim that it does not "employ" fake reporting

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

News outlets including CNN, the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times uncritically quoted White House spokeswoman Dana Perino's response to a question about an October 23 Federal Emergency Management Agency press conference, in which the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. Perino said of the conference, "It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House and we certainly don't condone it." But these news outlets failed to note previous Bush administration scandals involving "fake" reporting.

Reports on CNN and in the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times uncritically quoted White House spokeswoman Dana Perino's response to a question about an October 23 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) press conference, in which, as Washington Post columnist Al Kamen reported, "the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters." Perino said of the conference, "It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House and we certainly don't condone it." But as Media Matters for America has documented, the Bush administration has a history of generating "fake" news.

Several media reports uncritically included Perino's response to the press conference without noting past Bush administration scandals involving "fake" reporting:

  • An October 26 Associated Press article led by uncritically noting that "[t]he White House scolded" FEMA, adding that Perino "said it was not appropriate that the questions were posed by agency staffers instead of reporters."
  • An October 27 New York Times article stated that the conference "drew a rebuke from the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff," adding that Perino said: "It's not something I would have condoned ... And they -- I'm sure -- will not do it again."
  • An October 27 Los Angeles Times article stated that "[t]he White House was not happy with FEMA's response," adding Perino's quote: "It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House."
  • An October 27 Washington Post article uncritically included Perino's quote: "White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday that 'it is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House. We certainly don't condone it. We didn't know about it beforehand. . . . They, I'm sure, will not do it again.' "
  • In an October 29 Washington Post online discussion, staff writer and media critic Howard Kurtz wrote: "I don't think it's fair to blame the White House for this. Dana Perino made it quite clear that the White House did not approve of this make-believe event." Kurtz later noted Bush administration journalism scandals involving conservative columnist Armstrong Williams and "a couple of other commentators," but did not contrast these scandals with Perino's reported disapproval of the FEMA press conference.
  • On the October 29 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, correspondent Jeanne Meserve reported that "[t]he White House distanced itself" from the FEMA conference and then aired Perino's quote.

As Media Matters noted, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Bush administration's use of video news releases (VNRs) -- video reports that appeared to be created by journalists instead of the government and, as The New York Times reported, many of which "were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production" -- was in violation of federal law. A May 12, 2005, statement by GAO Managing Associate General Counsel Susan A. Poling noted:

In the past year, GAO has issued two legal opinions on the production of video news releases (VNRs) that included prepackaged news stories by both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In both of these instances, we concluded that the agencies violated the federal government-wide prohibition on the use of appropriated funds for purposes of publicity or propaganda not authorized by Congress.

Media Matters has documented numerous instances in which former White House press secretary Scott McClellan turned to former Talon News "Washington Bureau Chief" Jeff Gannon -- whose real name, James Guckert, was uncovered by bloggers in February 2005 -- for softball questions, particularly during heated press conferences. In early 2005, after Media Matters and others raised questions about his work, Gannon resigned from Talon News. One week later, the Talon News website -- operated by Republican activist Bobby Eberle -- was shut down and all articles deleted. Media Matters has documented several instances in which Gannon lifted text directly from Republican materials and sources.

The Bush administration has also paid journalists for support on specific issues:

  • As Media Matters noted, the Los Angeles Times reported on November 30, 2005, that "the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq." The Times added that a multinational military task force had "purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and was using them to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public."
  • Armstrong Williams' column was dropped by his syndicator, Tribune Media Services, following USA Today's report that the Bush administration paid him $240,000 to promote its No Child Left Behind education policy, as Media Matters noted.
  • As Media Matters noted, on January 26, 2005, Kurtz reported: "In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families. ... But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal."
  • On September 8, 2006, The Miami Herald reported that "[a]t least 10 South Florida journalists, including three from El Nuevo Herald, received regular payments from the U.S. government for programs on Radio Martí and TV Martí, two broadcasters aimed at undermining the communist government of Fidel Castro. The payments totaled thousands of dollars over several years. ... Pablo Alfonso, who reports on Cuba and writes an opinion column, was paid almost $175,000 since 2001 ... and staff reporter Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who covers the Cuban exile community and politics, was paid almost $15,000 in the last five years."

From the October 26 White House press briefing:

Q: Dana, on Tuesday, FEMA's deputy administrator held what was called a news briefing to talk about the California wildfires. And from what we understand, the questions were posed not by reporters, but by staffers, and that distinction was not made known. Is that appropriate?

PERINO: It is not. It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we -- we certainly don't condone it. We didn't know about it beforehand. FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to try to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regards to the wildfires in California. It's not something I would have condoned, and they, I'm sure, will not do it again.

Q: Who is responsible?

PERINO: FEMA is responsible, and they have taken that -- they have accepted that responsibility, and they issued an apology today.

Q: But isn't -- a follow-up on that. Isn't there a normal morning call with all the press secretaries of all the agencies here, and whether somebody is having a press briefing or not is discussed?

PERINO: We have a variety of ways that we talk to the -- communicate to the communicators in the agency. FEMA is not on that daily call, no, and I don't know if the DHS -- the head of DHS communications knew about it either. But FEMA has apologized for the error in judgment.

Q: Dana, why didn't this raise alarm bells, in terms of credibility, with anyone there?

PERINO: You'll have to ask them. They have admitted that they had an error in judgment. I would agree with that. They've issued an apology. You'll have to ask them about why they decided to do that.

Q: But isn't the President concerned, at a time when he is traveling to the area to talk about a very significant natural disaster -- there have been issues about FEMA in the past, trying to make a distinction about progress made, and for them to effectively pretend to hold a news conference, doesn't the President have concerns about that?

PERINO: I just said that the White House did not know about it before hand, and the White House condones* [sic] it. And they have apologized for it. They had an error in judgment, they've admitted that. And I think that what they were -- I don't think that there was any mal-intent. I think that they were trying to provide information to the public through the press, because there were so many questions pouring in. It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that.

Q: Will anybody be reprimanded?

PERINO: You'll have to ask FEMA.

From the October 26 Associated Press article:

The White House scolded the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday for staging a phony news conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.

The agency much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of independent reporters Tuesday and ask questions of Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the agency's deputy director.

The questions were predictably soft and gratuitous.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was not appropriate that the questions were posed by agency staffers instead of reporters. FEMA was responsible for the "error in judgment," she said, adding that the White House did not know about it beforehand and did not condone it.

"FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regard to the wildfires in California," Perino said. "It's not something I would have condoned. And they I'm sure will not do it again."

She said the agency was just trying to provide information to the public, through the press, because there were so many questions.

"I don't think that there was any mal-intent," Perino said "It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."

FEMA gave real reporters only 15 minutes notice about Tuesday's news conference . But because there was so little advance notice, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in. And many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.

From the October 27 New York Times:

The action, first reported on Friday in The Washington Post, drew a rebuke from the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and an apology from the agency official who was at the lectern, Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy director.

"We have made it clear that such a stunt will never be tolerated or repeated," a spokeswoman for the department, Laura C. Keehner, said on behalf of Mr. Chertoff.

The questions from the staff were posed after FEMA gave reporters only 15 minutes notice for a news conference on Tuesday, meaning that other than television camera crews, no reporters showed up before questioning began. A toll-free telephone line was provided so reporters could listen in, but it was not set up to allow questions.

As a result, staff members asked Mr. Johnson a series of friendly questions like, "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" and, "What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?"

Mr. Johnson gave no indication that the questions came from his own staff.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Mr. Johnson said in response to one question, according to a transcript.

Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said the event was mishandled. "It's not something I would have condoned," she said. "And they -- I'm sure -- will not do it again."

From the October 27 Los Angeles Times article:

On Friday, however, the agency admitted that the softball questions were posed by FEMA employees, not reporters.

The White House was not happy with FEMA's response.

"It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House," said Press Secretary Dana Perino, mentioning three times that it was an "error in judgment." "It's not something I would have condoned, and they, I'm sure, will not do it again."

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, was less happy.

"This is inexcusable and offensive, and stunts like this will not be tolerated or repeated," said spokeswoman Laura Keehner. "It was a lapse of judgment, and we find it offensive, and it won't happen again."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency apologized for the event, but protested that it was not intended to deceive. FEMA announced the news conference with 15 minutes' notice and provided an 800 number for reporters, but it was not set up to take questions. When no reporters showed up, FEMA provided stand-ins to ask questions and a video feed. Several channels broadcast parts of the event live.

From the October 27 Washington Post article:

"It was absolutely a bad decision. I regret it happened. Certainly . . . I should have stopped it," said John P. "Pat" Philbin, FEMA's director of external affairs. "I hope readers understand we're working very hard to establish credibility and integrity, and I would hope this does not undermine it."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday that "it is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House. We certainly don't condone it. We didn't know about it beforehand. . . . They, I'm sure, will not do it again."

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the staged briefing "totally unacceptable," adding, "While it is an isolated incident, that does not make it any more tolerable." He said reprimands are "very probable." FEMA is part of DHS.

From Kurtz's October 29 "Media Backtalk" discussion on washingtonpost.com:

Washington: I cannot believe the White House spokesman's response to the FEMA "press conference" was that the White House wouldn't do it with staffers pretending to be journalists asking questions. The White House response should have been "it was wrong" -- that's it, nothing else. It was wrong. And they wonder why FEMA is the butt of jokes?

washingtonpost.com: FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be ... FEMA (Post, Oct. 26)

Howard Kurtz: Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA as the Homeland Security chief, says the bogus news conference is the dumbest thing he's seen in government in a long time, and I agree. How anyone at FEMA thought this was a remotely acceptable idea, and thought they could get away with it, boggles the imagination. (Especially since FEMA's response to the California wildfires had been decent, and now this is the only thing anyone will remember.) But I don't think it's fair to blame the White House for this. Dana Perino made it quite clear that the White House did not approve of this make-believe event.

[...]

Mount Rainier, Md. -- FEMA fakes it!: While the FEMA news-fake-rence may be the worst of the worst ideas, it's not actually a new occurrence in this administration. The Department of Education has paid columnists to write favorably about its programs, and I recall at least one other agency releasing "fake" news stories produced inside the bureaucracy that ran on local television as legit news. I bet no one gets fired. What can we as citizens do to make sure the president and vice president understand that we won't tolerate this sort of thing?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what average folks can do, but it's our job as journalists to expose this whenever we can. That happened in the case of Armstrong Williams, who was getting federal funding from the Education Department while talking up No Child Left Behind, and in the case of a couple of other commentators, one of which was a story that I broke. Governments are always going to push the envelope when it comes to influencing public opinion, and we need to play the role of honest cops.

From the October 29 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

MESERVE: It looked like a press conference --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, this is the FEMA press briefing for --

MESERVE: -- sounded like a press conference. Only problem -- there wasn't any press: FEMA staffers asked the questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?

HARVEY E. JOHNSON JR. (FEMA chief operating officer and deputy administrator): I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far.

MESERVE: The Society of Professional Journalists calls it a "blatant abuse of public trust." They aren't alone.

STEPHEN HESS (Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus): This is a blot. This is a stain on government, public affairs.

MESERVE: The White House distanced itself.

PERINO: It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House and that we -- we certainly don't condone it.

MESERVE: The secretary of homeland security expressed disgust.

CHERTOFF: I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government.

MESERVE: And now, an apology from the head of FEMA: David Paulison called CNN to say the press conference was "ridiculous," "not acceptable," and "it won't happen again."

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