Scandal in the Press Corps

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, February 10, 2005; 12:44 PM

The rise and fall of "Jeff Gannon," the pseudononymous conservative partisan who bragged of working "behind enemy lines" in the White House press corps, is turning into the media scandal of the week.

But what, precisely, is the scandal? That depends on who you listen to.

The saga of James D. Guckert, AKA Jeff Gannon, is either:

- Yet another example of the White House's attempts to avoid scrutiny, undermine the free and independent media, and use fake news and propaganda to manipulate public opinion.

- Yet another example of the liberal domination of the mainstream media.

- Yet another example of the blogosphere's ability to out-investigate the mainstream media and force it to pay attention to stories that otherwise would be ignored.

- Yet another example of the blogosphere's bloodlust and mob-rule mentality crossing normal boundaries of propriety.

- Yet another distraction from more important things -- such as President Bush saying yesterday that the $1.5 trillion Social Security trust fund doesn't really exist. (More on that tomorrow.)

The Facts of the Case

It's worth calling attention to the things we think we know for sure.

Gannon -- I'm going to call him that for now, since I'm used to it -- worked for a Web site called Talon News, and his writings appeared on that site as well one called, both of which were operated by Texas Republican activist Bobby Eberle. On his personal Web page, Gannon had a section called "Behind Enemy Lines: Stories from Inside the White House Briefing Room."

Pretty much every day, Gannon got cleared into the White House briefing room by a press office that knew his real name. Press Secretary Scott McClellan frequently called on him during the mid-day briefings, using his fake name. McClellan was consistently rewarded with questions that -- in stark contrast from most of what passes for questions in that room -- were more expressions of conservative dogma than actual attempts to elicit information. Members of the press corps individually confronted Gannon and told him that he didn't belong there. But nothing more serious than that happened -- until Bush called on him at his televised Jan. 26 news conference and he asked a loaded, inaccurate question partly derived from a Rush Limbaugh joke.

In the ensuing days, liberal Web sites and an army of bloggers determined his real name, called attention to his lack of journalistic credentials, found a link to gay porn Web sites, pointed out how that ran afoul of his "family values" positions, and apparently hounded him into resigning.

The News Coverage

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The conservative reporter who asked President Bush a loaded question at a news conference last month resigned yesterday after liberal bloggers uncovered his real name and raised questions about his background.

"Jeff Gannon, who had been writing for the Web sites Talon News and GOPUSA, is actually James Dale Guckert, 47, and has been linked to online domain addresses with sexually provocative names. . . .

"Gannon's resignation highlights the no-holds-barred atmosphere of the Web, which both enabled him to function as a reporter -- his stories appeared on a site founded by Texas Republican activist Bobby Eberle -- and produced a swarm of critics determined to expose him. . . .

"Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who writes on, said the tactics used against Gannon "seem to me to be despicable.' "

Alan Wirzbicki and Charlie Savage write in the Boston Globe: "Gannon came under scrutiny after Bush called on him during a rare and nationally televised news conference two weeks ago. Gannon's question attacked Democrats as having 'divorced themselves from reality' and repeated an allegation against Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, that turned out to be a joke by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

"The unusual question prompted a wave of attention initially led by David Brock, the former right-wing investigative journalist who now operates a left-wing media watchdog group, Media Matters for America."

Gannon Responds

Jennifer Brooks, a reporter for the Delaware News Journal, spoke to the man she calls Guckert, a former Wilmington resident.

" 'I asked a question at a White House press briefing and this is what happened to me,' Guckert told The News Journal on Wednesday after announcing his resignation. 'If this is what happens to me, what reporter is safe?'"

Brooks writes: "Bloggers also discovered that several gay pornographic domain names had been registered through his domain.

"Guckert said he registered those domain names for a client while he was working to set up a Web hosting business in Wilmington.

" 'There are people out there who will turn people's lives inside out,' Guckert said. 'They tried to intimidate me, punish me. Then they tried to embarrass me, and they've done a pretty good job of that.' "

Congressional Letter

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) sent a letter to the White House yesterday. Here's the full text.

Some excerpts: "In light of the mounting evidence that your Administration has, on several occasions, paid members of the media to advocate in favor of Administration policies, I feel compelled to ask you to address a matter brought to my attention by the Niagara Falls Reporter (article attached), a local newspaper in my district, regarding James 'JD' Guckert (AKA Jeff Gannon) of Talon News. . . .

"[I]t appears that 'Mr. Gannon's' presence in the White House press corps was merely as a tool of propaganda for your Administration. . . .

"That is why I am asking you to please explain to the Congress and to the American people how and why the individual known as 'Mr. Gannon' was repeatedly cleared by your staff to join the legitimate White House press corps?"

McClellan Responds

Scott Shepard writes for Cox News Service: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he had not seen the letter from Slaughter, but dismissed her suggestion that Gannon was allowed into White House press briefings to help promote Bush's political agenda.

" 'She must not be following the briefings too closely because she'd see that here are a number of people in that room that are advocates,' McClellan said. 'There are a number of people who express their views in that briefing room.' . . .

"McClellan said, 'I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into being a media critic or to get into the role of picking or choosing who gets press credentials.' . . .

" 'The daily press pass, my understanding from the staff is, they check to make sure that they are a news organization that publishes regularly and they have to go through a clearance process like anyone else who comes to the White House,' he said. . . .

" 'You have a changing media environment right now,' said McClellan. 'We have a number of different media outlets that used to not be around . . . and if the question becomes where do you draw the line -- that's not an easy issue to address in this day and age.' "

Blog Reaction

"How the hell could this Gannon/Guckert scandal happen right in front of the White House Press Corps?" asks Americablog, which went all-Gannon all-the-time yesterday.

Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, whose readers fueled the story with their research, writes: "Why should we care about Jeff Gannon?

He "gets White House credentials using a fake name, provides McClellan a welcome ideological lifeline during press conferences, and somehow gets access to classified CIA documents that outs an undercover CIA operative."

Many of the Daily Kos postings are now focused on how Gannon apparently got hold of a secret internal CIA memo that he mentioned in an interview he had with Valerie Plame's husband, former ambassador and administration critic Joseph Wilson.

About a year ago, the federal grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA operative subpoenaed White House records on contacts with 25 journalists. Gannon was one of them -- apparently on account of that memo.

You can read more about that, by the way, in a column I wrote on March 10, almost a year ago.

Tim Graham, who served as White House correspondent for a national weekly Christian news magazine, had this to say on National Review's The Corner blog: "[A]s a one-time White House correspondent that asked clearly conservative (but tough) questions in the briefing room, I can only say I'm glad I got out before the left-wing bloggers exposed my unnatural attraction to sugared kiddie cereals. Can we start at square one and agree that these very personal attacks on Jeff Gannon are creepy coming from the libertine left?"

He added: "The White House press corps is not supposed to be a gang beating. It's supposed to present White House comment on the news of the day. Are the people really served by seventeen phrasings of the same attack question? Are they harmed by one question on a topic conservatives are interested in?"

An Ethicist's View

Kelly McBride, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school, sees problems everywhere.

Shepard quotes him as saying that "the White House shouldn't be putting in 'ringers' to prevent the White House press corps from performing its watchdog duties."

Wirzbicki and Savage quote him saying that the investigation of Gannon's personal life crossed traditional boundaries and was characterized by "mean-spiritedness and snarkiness. . . . Those are not tactics you would see practiced in most traditional newsrooms."

Kurtz on CNN

Here's Howard Kurtz talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN:

"BLITZER: Is there any evidence that there's a connection, that the White House put him up to this to throw these kind of questions whether to Scott McClellan or to the president? Any evidence of wrongdoing, first of all, on the part of the White House?

"KURTZ: No evidence whatsoever. I talked to Scott McClellan about this today, the White House spokesman. He said, first of all, President Bush didn't know who Jeff Gannon was when he called on him at that news conference.

"But McClellan knows who he is. He calls on him at White House briefings from time to time. He says that there are a lot of people in the White House press room who have strong opinions and sometimes put them into their questions and it's not his job as the press secretary to be deciding who can get into the White House and who can't based on their political views.

"Gannon, by the way, says, sure, he's very conservative. He makes no bones about that. But he thinks that a lot of the reporters in the White House press room are liberal, and he provides some balance. . . .

"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?

"BLITZER: I used to be a White House correspondent for many years, sat through numerous briefings. There are plenty of journalists that wear their politics on their sleeve, liberals, conservatives. What's wrong with journalists having these kind of views, being advocacy journalists, if you will?

"KURTZ: I personally don't think there's anything wrong with it, as long as they make clear what their views are, as Jeff Gannon clearly did.

"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 in the age of blogging, that's hardly unusual. And he doesn't have a permanent -- what's called a hard pass. He just gets cleared into the White House on a day-to-day basis, which is a privilege that is pretty much open to any journalist."

Milbank on MSNBC

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, who covered the White House until recently, was on MSNBC with Keith Olberman last night.

"It was Jeff's decision, or whatever his name's decision, to step down. He wasn't kicked out of the White House at all, so that's really where the scandal lies in this whole thing," Milbank said.

"[I]t is clear that Scott McClellan knew it wasn't his real name. He had to provide his real name to get into the White House. So here you have the press secretary of the United States playing along, addressing this guy by his pseudonym. So there was some degree of complicity, even if he wasn't granted, against White House rules, an actual hard pass. . . .

"The fact is he was representing a phony media company. . . . There are many people, Fox News, Washington Times -- they're conservative, but they're legitimate media organizations.

"This guy is not a real journalist and he was hanging out there just wasting everyone's time in the press room. . . .

"It follows a pattern in this administration that we've 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 an awful lot like that."

Boehlert in Salon

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "The Gannon revelations come on the heels of the discovery that Bush administration officials signed lucrative contracts for several conservative pundits who hyped White House initiatives and did not disclose the government's payments. The Talon News fiasco raises serious questions about who the White House is allowing into its daily press briefings: How can a reporter using a fake name and working for a fake news organization get press credentials from the White House, let alone curry enough favor with the notoriously disciplined Bush administration to get picked by the president in order to ask fake questions? The White House did not return Salon's calls seeking answers to those questions."

As for McClellan's assertion that it's not his role to be a media critic and pick and choose who gets credentials, Boehlert quotes Ron Suskind, who has written extensively about the Bush White House: "That's like [McClellan] saying, 'I'm chief of staff at a hospital and when a patient dies in surgery and it turns out the guy operating wasn't a doctor . . . [it's] not my business to be a medical critic,' . . . Nobody is asking him to be a media critic. They're asking him to make sure people in the press room -- the ones using up precious time during extremely rare press conferences -- are acting journalists, honest brokers dealing with genuine inquiry to get at the truth."

Another Gannon in the Wings?

Blogger Atrios asks: "Gannon leaves, and is magically replaced with GannonBot Mark II (or is it KinsolvingBot Mark III?)."

He was citing this question from yesterday's briefing:

"Q Does this administration believe the Democratic leaders are now engaged in a deliberate disinformation campaign as the best way to undermine the President's goals and objectives on a number of issues?"

I'm told the question came from about the sixth row, but no one I talked to seemed to know who he was.

Incidentally, nobody at the briefing had any questions about Gannon.

Kumar Speaks

Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson State University, has made a study of the White House press corps -- literally. She watches almost every briefing with an eagle eye. I spoke with her yesterday.

"I thought Jeff was an embarrassment. He clearly did not ask questions that were designed to elicit information," she said.

Should reporters have taken some action before the bloggers did?

"People have talked to him about his questions, and let him know -- at least I know a couple who have -- that his questions are not objective questions that are characteristic of the kind of questions that you find in the briefing room."

But, Kumar said, "Reporters are kind of a live and let live group. They're interested in their own reporting, and they're not interested in ferreting out if someone's a charlatan."

Should McClellan have called on him? Absolutely, said Kumar.

The way the press room is set up, major media organizations have assigned seats. But quite often, reporters from those organizations don't show up, so others -- like Gannon -- sit in their place.

"McClellan should call on whoever's in that seat," Kumar said. "You don't want a press secretary to say, 'I'm going to call on you,' 'I'm not going to call on you', because next thing you know there are going to be people who aren't called on because they're rude or because they don't like their questions."

Should the White House further restrict entry to the briefing room?

"I think as many organizations that are valid news organizations that can be represented, the better," she said.

But who gets to decide who's valid and who's not?

"Who do you want deciding that?" Kumar asks. "Do you want the White House deciding that? Or do you want the White House Correspondents Association deciding that? No one really wants to make that decision."

Gannon's Greatest Hits

Some of Gannon's greatest hits, as featured in a video montage on Olberman's show last night:

May 10, 2004: "Q In your denunciations of the Abu Ghraib photos, you've used words like 'sickening,' 'disgusting' and 'reprehensible.' Will you have any adjectives left to adequately describe the pictures from Saddam's rape rooms and torture chambers? And will Americans ever see those images?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm glad you brought that up, Jeff, because the President talks about that often."

July 15, 2004: "Q Last Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that shows that Ambassador Joe Wilson lied when he said his wife didn't put him up for the mission to Niger. The British inquiry into their own prewar intelligence yesterday concluded that the President's 16 words were 'well-founded.' Doesn't Joe Wilson owe the President and America an apology for his deception and his own intelligence failure?"

April 1, 2004: "Q I'd like to comment on the angry mob that surrounded Karl Rove's house on Sunday. They chanted and pounded on the windows until the D.C. police and Secret Service were called in. The protest was organized by the National People's Action Coalition, whose members receive taxpayer funds, as well as financial support from groups including Theresa Heinz Kerry's Tides Foundation.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I would just say that, one, we appreciate and understand concerns that people may have. I would certainly hope that people would respect the families of White House staff."

Feb. 10, 2004: "Q Since there have been so many questions about what the President was doing over 30 years ago, what is it that he did after his honorable discharge from the National Guard? Did he make speeches alongside Jane Fonda, denouncing America's racist war in Vietnam? Did he testify before Congress that American troops committed war crimes in Vietnam? And did he throw somebody else's medals at the White House to protest a war America was still fighting?"

© 2005