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Flap Over White House Press Corps is Far from Over
Published on Monday, February 28, 2005 by Knight Ridder
Flap Over White House Press Corps is Far from Over
by Dick Polman
 

The White House correspondent formerly known as Gannon has quit his job and acknowledged his real name, which is Guckert.

And his employer, a conservative Web site operated by Texas Republican activists, having already erased all traces of "Gannon," announced Thursday that it was unplugging its Web site to "reevaluate operations."

But the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert saga is far from over. It remains unclear how a graduate of a conservative training program, someone with no previous journalism experience, someone whose writings were often lifted directly from White House press releases, still managed to gain access to the White House press room, where he spent two years lobbing gentle questions at the press secretary and the President.

And some political analysts who monitor President Bush's relations with the media insist that Gannon (who, referring to Democrats, recently asked Bush, "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?") should not be viewed as an isolated case. Rather, they contend that Gannon is symptomatic of a broader White House strategy to undermine the traditional media by disseminating the Bush message in creative new ways.

Every president has sought to manipulate the media. But historians say that Bush, unhappy with what he calls "the filter," is courting controversy in his quest for innovative formats. Several conservative commentators have been paid to trumpet Bush policies in their work; one recipient, Armstrong Williams, is being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission. And two agencies have disseminated pro-Bush videos that look like TV newscasts, without disclosing the Bush sponsorship - a breach of federal law, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The White House has stated that these media decisions were made independently by the agencies. Nevertheless, former Republican strategist Jim Pinkerton, who later worked in the senior George Bush's administration, says: "It's quite clear this White House is exploring radical alternative ways to getting its message out - through the aggressive hiring of flacks like Williams, and the presence, or even planting, of friendly so-called journalists like Gannon.

"The Bush people are challenging all the old assumptions about how to work the press. They are ambitious - visionary, if you will - in ways that Washington has yet to fathom."

Larry Gross, who runs the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, says: "Richard Nixon hated the press, Bill Clinton hated the press - but they accepted the basic rules of the game. Bush has a strategy of discrediting, end-running, and even faking the news. Those prepackaged videos sent to local TV stations `looked' like news, much the way Gannon `looked' like a reporter. We're seeing something new: Potemkin-village journalism."

By contrast, the Bush administration and its defenders say that the mainstream press is generally hostile to Bush, and therefore, as the President said in 2003, "somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter." Press secretary Scott McClellan denies that the administration planted Gannon, and says that Gannon sought access on his own: "In this day and age, when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist."

Gannon himself contends that he is a victim of a liberal conspiracy; anti-Bush bloggers, curious about his softball questions, dug into his past last month and quickly learned that he was working for partisan Republicans - and that he had previously worked as a gay escort for hire. Gannon, still using his alias, posted a statement Friday on his personal Web site: "The Left is engaging in 21st Century McCarthyism in an effort to blacklist conservative journalists, in order (to) protect their domination of the media."

Not surprisingly, given the current polarized climate, Gannon critics insist that his presence in the White House was part of a Bush master plan to undercut the mainstream media. But Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and Bush ally, scoffs, saying: "The notion of the White House somehow being involved in a conspiracy to control the news by planting someone like Gannon is just laughable. They (critics) are trying to connect the dots, but they're coloring outside the lines."

Nevertheless, Galen offers a significant admonition: "Partisan organizations properly belong at the Republican National Committee, and at the Democratic National Committee. I don't think the White House should have allowed him in. They knew perfectly well what was going on and who he was writing for."

Indeed, when Gannon first showed up in February 2003, seeking access, he was working for GOPUSA.com, a site run by Texas Republican Bobby Eberle, and dedicated "to spreading the conservative message throughout America." Gannon had never worked for a media outlet. He had attended the Leadership Institute, which is run by conservative leader Morton Blackwell (who helped mentor Bush strategist Karl Rove). The institute's stated mission is "to identify, recruit, train, and place conservatives in politics, government, and media."

Gannon was given a "day pass" - renewed virtually every day for two years - and therefore was exempted from Secret Service scrutiny. He used his real name while applying for his day pass; his tag carried his Gannon alias. As McClellan recently recalled, an aide checked the Internet and confirmed that GOPUSA.com "existed." That was the criterion for admittance. Two months later, Eberle created Talon News, which became Gannon's home. (Last year, already admitted to the White House, Gannon tried and failed to get a congressional pass.)

Gannon, on the job, repeatedly got McClellan out of jams. Last spring, for example, when McClellan was being hit with questions about the torture of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison, Gannon changed the subject: "Will you have any adjectives left to adequately describe the pictures from Saddam's rape room and torture chambers?"

McClellan replied, "I'm glad you brought that up, Jeff."

A year ago, while McClellan was fielding questions about Bush's National Guard service, Gannon told McClellan that at least Bush didn't make any speeches "alongside Jane Fonda." Last summer, Gannon filed stories on Bush policies for Talon News that copied, almost word for word, White House and Republican Party talking points.

But it was a question to Bush last month that put Gannon in the limelight: "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines. . . . How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" It turned out that Senate Minority Leader Reid had never invoked soup lines. Gannon had borrowed the reference from Rush Limbaugh, who had fabricated it. Limbaugh later admitted on the air that "Harry Reid never said soup lines," but said he was "honored and proud" that Gannon had used it.

Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University in Maryland, who monitors the White House press, says: "Jeff was the kind of person who saw the briefings as an opportunity to air his point of view. Looking back (at the Clinton era), I can't think of any analogous person on the Democratic side. There were no Democratic-trained partisans like Jeff. If there had been anyone like that, you would have heard an uproar on Capitol Hill," from the Republican majority.

Gannon's defenders see him as a martyr. Tim Graham, an analyst at the conservative Media Research Center, says that "conservative journalists ... have every bit as much right to sit in those chairs and ask their own questions as the everyday liberal partisans do." But Gannon's critics are not disputing the credentials of those conservatives with reportorial experience who work for outlets with conservative audiences - such as the National Review, the Washington Times, and Fox News.

Todd Gitlin, a liberal media analyst at Columbia University, sees the Gannon case in dark terms: "It's a psychological thing. Gannon was there, either as a plant or on his own, to deliver the larger message, to convince people that the liberal side is the losing side, that the country doesn't need the mainstream media, and that the administration message is the wave of the future."

Kumar isn't as bleak - she thinks that White House staffers admitted Gannon to err on the side of openness - but she explains why Gannon's story resonates: "The administration's attempts to control information is a hot issue - the sealing of government records, the secrecy of Dick Cheney's energy task force. For many people, the Gannon case fits right in."

Or perhaps Gannon's lack of subtlety is proof that he is an aberration. As he plaintively suggested on NBC the other day, "If the White House was going to use a plant, wouldn't they have picked someone better than me?"

© 1996-2005 Knight Ridder.

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