Bring on the Lobotomy

Call me old fashioned, but I want the FEMA fellow on the scene with a little schmutz on his face not perfectly coiffed like an air-brushed television anchor behind a podium.
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It certainly was a slap-your-head, what-was-he-thinking-moment. FEMA decided to call a press conference and then held it without the press.


FEMA. Perhaps the acronym should stand for fabricated emergency manipulated amateurs. I thought I had seen it all, but a fake press conference with agency staff posing as reporters... Five, four, three, two, one -- you're on! Hurray for Hollywood.

When the Oakland Hills caught fire in 1991 I remember a photographer wanted to move a piece of smoking wood so he could light the background more dramatically. That is certainly not a cardinal sin, but it's better not to stage anything when it comes to reporting the news. Little compromises lead to big ones as we saw yesterday. And good God, how much drama does one country need? Thousands of homes lost, lives in ruins, palpable anguish. Remembering the Oakland Hills firestorm, my stomach ached for the victims of this one.

And call me old fashioned, but I want the FEMA fellow on the scene with a little schmutz on his face not perfectly coiffed like an air-brushed television anchor behind a podium. If he's on the scene, chances are he's more likely to have the empathy that should be a prerequisite for that job.

Now, having said that, let's cut the guy some slack. It's not as if it was George Bush telling us Iraq had nuclear weapons. It was the FEMA guy trying to avoid another shit storm.

I have seen many a capable person publicly lobotomized as they turn to Jell-o and their I.Q. drops to the ground during live interviews. It's not as easy as it looks. I imagine it was fear of the unknown that led to the deputy director's bad decision. Avoiding the "deer in the headlights" look is always good and the unknown is what usually causes that. Wouldn't we all want to know what the questions are going to be before we get them? Not knowing them and answering with sincerity, empathy and facts is what separates the girls from the women. My guess is the poor FEMA fellow just wanted to get home without having to wipe humiliation off his shoes. Remember, on live television saying one thing wrong can get your fired. A fake press conference was stupid all right, but we've certainly seen worse lately, so let's lower the bar for this guy. But first let's explain the rules.

News is not supposed to be staged. FEMA staff members had not been out covering the fires and they are not reporters. This is how it is supposed to work.

Inform the audience. Tell them everything you know. Public officials should always tell the truth without slant or spin. (I know that sounds terribly naïve these days.) If you don't want to get grilled by an angry mob of journalists, tell them what you know, and if you don't know the answer to the question, promise to get it. There's nothing wrong with saying you don't know. There is something wrong with not finding out. Be available all the time with updates. Give the press your phone numbers. Tell them to call you day or night. This was a national emergency. Sleep is out of the question anyway. Remember, good reporters are public servants. They have to get information to those who need it. And after 25 years reporting, I can tell you journalists love anyone who works hard and tells them the truth. You don't have to be an actor with perfect delivery -- just a caring conduit of information.

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