*Special "Jeff Gannon" edition*
Talon News "reporter" Jeff Gannon abruptly quit his post as Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent this week -- but unanswered questions remain about how he was able to infiltrate the White House press corps and disrupt briefings and press conferences. The following is an overview of the Gannon story to date, along with several open questions journalists should pursue rather than continuing to focus on irrelevant details about Gannon's other activities.
Media Matters' role in the Gannon story
Talon "News" "reporter" "Jeff Gannon" -- whose real name turns out to be James Guckert -- quit his job this week in the wake of increasing scrutiny -- prompted by Media Matters for America -- of the propriety of his presence in White House press briefings.
Media Matters' January 26 item about Gannon's recent softball question during a presidential press conference -- a question that contained false claims about Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) -- detailed Talon News' Republican ties and Gannon's history of acting as a lifeline for President Bush and White House press secretary Scott McClellan during televised briefings and press conferences.
The next day, Media Matters explained that Gannon's question for Bush was based on a false claim Rush Limbaugh had made on his radio program, and detailed three examples of so-called news articles by Gannon that were little more than verbatim reprints of Republican fact sheets and Bush statements -- though the "articles" didn't make clear to readers that they were not the product of original reporting, but rather of copying-and-pasting from the White House website.
After Media Matters detailed how Talon News is virtually indistinguishable from GOPUSA, a company that proclaims its dedication "to promoting conservative ideals," Media Matters President and CEO David Brock wrote a letter to McClellan asking him to consider revoking Gannon's press credentials. As noted in the letter, employees of Talon and GOPUSA have virtually no journalism experience, but extensive experience in Republican Party politics; and Texan Bobby Eberle, who runs both companies, was a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention that first nominated George W. Bush for president.
Media Matters' items about Talon, GOPUSA, and Gannon led to increased scrutiny of Gannon by news organizations and online activists at DailyKos.com and other websites. Editor & Publisher, for example, revealed that Gannon and Talon applied for Capitol Hill press credentials in April 2004, but were rejected because they could not provide evidence that they were an independent news organization. E&P also quoted several real journalists who were critical of "Gannon."
Gannon's resignation prompted several reporters to focus on salacious details instead of important questions
This week, Gannon abruptly decided to quit his position with Talon News, stating: "Because of the attention being paid to me I find it is no longer possible to effectively be a reporter for Talon News."
But while Gannon's presence at White House press briefings raised real and troubling questions about why the Bush administration allowed a partisan operative posing as an independent journalist and using a fake name to provide a lifeline to McClellan and disrupt serious questioning by real reporters, many reporters have turned the Gannon story into a circus.
Rather than focusing on Gannon's and Talon's lack of credentials as journalists and their extensive ties to the Republican Party, or on Gannon's tendency to repeat White House talking points verbatim as "news" reports, or even on the propriety of the White House press office issuing Gannon a "daily pass" nearly every day for two years so he didn't have to go through the credentialing process for a permanent pass, some reporters obsessed instead over more salacious discussion about Gannon taking place on some websites.
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank understood the story's true importance during the February 9 edition of MSNBC's Countdown:
MILBANK: The fact is he was representing a phony media company that doesn't really have any such thing as circulation or readership, it's affiliated with something called GOPUSA. So, there are many people, Fox News, Washington Times, they are conservative but they are legitimate organizations. So, this guy is not a real journalist. And he was hanging out there wasting everybody's time in the press room.
OLBERMANN: But let me ask you, finally, is it fair to contextualize this in light of the well-publicized administration payments to Armstrong Williams and two other columnists to support their policies? Is this a mutation of that? Or is it just lousy judgment? In other words, was he a plant? Or was he just an ineligible presence?
MILBANK: Well, I think he is probably somewhere in between. You saw from the clips you played there of Scott McClellan turning to him as a life line. I call him a foil. You turn to this guy when you want to get the heat of off of you from another subject.
It follows a pattern in this administration. We have seen not only the Armstrong Williams case, but cases in which people -- there have actually been actors used posing as journalists in advertisements. This seems a awful lot like that. This didn't have as far-reaching consequences, but it was of a similar vein.
But Milbank's Washington Post colleague, Howard Kurtz, like many other reporters, chose to focus on the lurid sideshow surrounding Gannon's ties to web sites like "Militaryescortsm4m.com" rather than covering Gannon seriously.
Kurtz -- ostensibly a media critic -- first mentioned Gannon in a February 7 Washington Post column, in which he wrote:
Gannon, who uses a pseudonym -- he declines to reveal his real name -- sees a "double standard" in criticism from such liberal groups as Media Matters. "I am admittedly a conservative journalist, and that point of view is not represented in the briefing room at all," says Gannon, who also hosts an online radio show for the Rightalk network. Other White House reporters "come from a decidedly liberal perspective, certainly left of center. ... Call me partisan, fine, but don't let my colleagues off the hook. They're partisan too, but they don't admit it."
But while Kurtz gave Gannon plenty of space to lash out at his critics, including accusing Media Matters of having a "double standard," Kurtz inexplicably failed to tells his readers what exactly our criticism of Gannon was. That's right: Kurtz's only mention of Media Matters was Gannon's criticism; nowhere did he even hint at the substance of our "criticism" of Gannon. One wonders what "media critic" Howard Kurtz would say about such unbalanced "reporting" as that contained in this Howard Kurtz column.
But Kurtz's coverage of Gannon didn't get any more serious. Kurtz appeared on the February 9 edition of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, where he defended Gannon, made no mention of Gannon's recitation of White House talking points, and called Talon News "kind of a straight news site." Kurtz added that "all of the stories that he writes also appear on a site that's called GOPUSA," but that overstates how much of a "straight news site" Talon is and understates how intertwined Talon is with GOPUSA. As Media Matters had previously explained:
Articles on TalonNews.com consist of brief introductory paragraphs, followed by a link to "Read more"; clicking on that link takes you to a page that announces, "This story can be found on our #1 client -- GOPUSA!" Readers are then redirected to the GOPUSA.com site.
Kurtz went on to declare:
So the issue here isn't really Jeff Gannon's ideology. He's the first to tell you that he comes at journalism from a conservative perspective. The issue I think is, should some of his liberal critics, these liberal bloggers, have started investigating his personal life in an effort to discredit him? It's fine to disagree with his politics, but did they go too far, I think a lot of people are asking, in dragging in some of this personal stuff?
Kurtz completely ignored the important issues -- the issues that his Post colleague Milbank and MSNBC's Olbermann raised -- about whether or not Gannon was really a journalist. Instead, he declared that Gannon's ideology isn't relevant -- which nobody disagrees with; as Milbank noted, FOX News is conservative, but they are a news organization and belong in press briefings. In suggesting complaints about Gannon were based on his ideology, Kurtz was tearing down a straw man; as Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily explained:
But this isn't a media bias issue, no matter how hard you spin it. (And there isn't much these days that critics won't try to spin as a media bias issue.) No one, after all, is trying to ban Fox News or Helen Thomas from the briefing room. Gannon asked questions designed not to get information from Bush but to demonstrate his allegiance to him, not to mention his disgust with Democrats and his own ostensible colleagues. Real journalists, the ones who belong in press conferences, know that access to a president is a rare gift, and they know enough not to squander it. Gannon threw away his opportunity in favor of self-aggrandizing partisan spectacle. He put himself and his agenda ahead of the public good, and he did it in a manner so egregious that he left little doubt of his intentions. If both sides of the debate, blinded by partisan zeal, don't realize that's the real reason he had to go, they've missed the point.
Back on CNN, Kurtz then shifted the discussion to Gannon's "personal stuff," before finally stating "A lot of people are questioning, well, why does this guy have White House press credentials? Because he doesn't write for a newspaper or magazine. Everything he writes is simply online." But objections to Gannon weren't based on the fact that "everything he writes is simply online"; they were based on the fact that he doesn't write for a news organization, he writes for a partisan activist organization.
CNN's Blitzer concluded the segment, noting that the Gannon affair "does come within the context of some of the other embarrassments, Armstrong Williams and some other issues, which we won't get into right now."
No, of course not. Why would they "get into" a little thing like a pattern of the White House using fake "journalists" to advance its agenda, when they could focus on "personal stuff" instead?
Members of Congress call for investigation into Gannon's presence in White House briefings, possession of classified information
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has asked the White House to provide documents relating to Gannon and an explanation "of how Mr. Guckert/Gannon passed muster for White House press credentials." Lautenberg further noted:
I have led the effort in the Senate to investigate a number of instances of troubling propaganda efforts by the Administration. The Government Accountability Office has agreed to my requests to investigate various attempts at media manipulation: fake television news stories touting both the new Medicare law and the "No Child Left Behind" education program; a study rating individual journalists on their "favorability" to Republican education policies; and the payment to journalist Armstrong Williams.
Since the Armstrong Williams controversy became public, Administration payments to two other journalists, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, have come to light. Given the backdrop of these scandals, coupled with Mr. Guckert/Gannon's role in recent White House press briefings and press conferences, it is understandable that the circumstances of Mr. Guckert/Gannon's credentialing have raised suspicion.
Two Members of Congress, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), have also asked for an investigation. According to the New York Times:
Two Democrats in Congress are pressing for investigations into how a Washington reporter who used a pseudonym managed to gain access to the White House and had access to classified documents that named Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. operative. The Democrats, Representatives John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Louise M. Slaughter from Rochester, wrote yesterday to Patrick Fitzgerald, the independent prosecutor appointed in the Plame case, seeking an investigation into how the reporter, James D. Guckert, who used the name Jeff Gannon, had access to classified documents that revealed the identity of Ms. Plame.
Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Ms. Slaughter, said: "This is a guy who could not get credentialed by the House or the Senate press galleries, and yet managed to get into the White House and question the president" and have access to a top-secret document.
He added: "To imply he has no connection to the White House is just not credible."
The full Conyers-Slaughter letter is available here.
In light of these calls for investigation into Gannon and his possession of classified documents that revealed the identity of a CIA operative, and given that the Gannon matter seems to be simply the latest in a long series of incidents of the Bush White House using fake and paid-for "journalists" to promote its agenda, perhaps serious reporters will focus on these matters, and not on Gannon's other web sites and the "personal stuff" Kurtz has thus far found more interesting.
At the very least, those reporters who chose to ignore the more important aspects of the story in favor of focusing on salacious but irrelevant details would do well to tone down their tut-tutting of "liberal bloggers" who discovered the "personal stuff."
Important questions about Gannon, White House remain unanswered
There remain numerous unanswered questions reporters who are serious about covering this story should be asking -- several of them raised by the "liberal bloggers" who are so frequently blamed for delving into the "personal stuff." Below are just a few:
- How exactly was Gannon allowed into the press briefing room?
- McClellan has said, "I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into picking or choosing who gets press credentials." Does he really mean to imply that if, say, incoming Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean were to ask, he would be allowed into presidential press conferences?
- Would Bush call on Dean? Would he answer Dean's question?
- What if Dean first paid $50 for a two-day journalism course at the right-wing Leadership Institute, like Gannon did?
- What if Dean started calling himself "Harry Dixon" instead of using his real name?
- Gannon apparently obtained a copy of classified documents regarding CIA operative Plame. What specific steps is President Bush taking to ensure that his administration never again illegally hands classified documents that reveal the identity of covert operatives over to someone using a pseudonym?
- Given that Gannon was using a pseudonym, the administration official who apparently gave him the classified documents presumably did not know his true identity -- McClellan himself claimed he only "recently" became aware that Gannon is not his real name. What are the national security implications of someone running around the halls of the White House, using an assumed identity while talking to people with security clearance about CIA operatives?
- Did Gannon's misrepresentation of his identity constitute a security breach?
- Was anything illegal done -- other than the disclosure of Plame's identity in apparent violation of the law?
- Did the White House use Gannon to disseminate any other controversial or illegal materials?
- When did McClellan find out Gannon was using a pseudonym? When did others on the White House staff find out? Who in the press office decided to allow Gannon into briefings?
- Why did Gannon use a "daily pass" nearly every day for two years, rather than obtaining a "hard pass"? Was this an "end-around" the normal process, designed to hide the fact that a partisan operative was posing as a "journalist"?
- At least one reporter -- The Washington Post's Dana Milbank -- has said he believes he saw Gannon walking around with a "hard pass." Which is correct? Will the White House release any and all documents relating to Gannon's visits to the White House?
- President Bush is notoriously disinclined to hold press conferences, and even more notoriously likes to befriend the reporters who cover him. The Bush White House is also well-known for scripting Bush's every move. Is it really plausible that Gannon has been covering the White House for two years, and was able to ask Bush a question at a briefing, without Bush knowing who he is?
- Did Gannon ever travel with the rest of the White House press corps? Did he accompany Bush to Crawford, Texas, or on any other trips away from Washington? Did he fly on Air Force One?
- Who else regularly attends White House press briefings using "daily passes"? Do any of them, like Talon, pass off White House talking points as original reporting?
- Talon is looking for a replacement for Gannon; will Talon again be allowed to send a fake reporter to briefings? Will he or she be called on?