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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Gannon Fodder

I know many of my readers have been waiting for me to weigh in on the emerging saga of esrtwhile journalist "Jeff Gannon" (a.k.a J.D. Guckert.)

Many conservatives find themselves wondering where the story is.

Well, I think back to Jack Shafer's harsh and yet right on target description of Bush administration as the "propganda presidency," which actually came out well before the revelation of Jeff Gannon/J.D. Guckert as a secretly-placed shill for the Administration from the White House press.

There are two real questions about this whole Gannon business that I would like to see answered:

1. Why did the administration plant a shill in the White House press corps?
There are plenty of media outlets out there with reporters who'd have been more than happy to serve as designated lapdogs for Bush and company. Among the better known press outlets alone you have Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and United Press International, which is part of Sun Myung Moon's media empire. Why bother with having some close associate invent a news agency and have that agency install a fake journalist in the Press Corps?

The odd thing is that they well might have gotten away with it, had they picked a better plant. Subtlety was not this guy's strong suit; he asked questions like ""How are you going to work with people [Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" It seems that people just starting asking questions, and people at Daily Kos started digging.

Back when he was Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer was even hesitant to call on him, probably in part (though he doesn't say it) out fear that Gannon was tipping his hand with his over-the-top obsequiousness.

2. Why did they plant *this* shill, of all people, in the White House press corps?
There are tight restrictions on who gets White House press credentials, and for some good reasons, mostly relating to national security. Under an assumed name, which isn't supposed to be permitted (even to the extent that married female journalists use their maiden names,) Gannon gets a series of daily passes to White House press briefings, as an employee of an outfit calling itself Talon News Services, affiliated with the highly partisan web site GOPUSA. Press secretary Scott McClellan goes to "Gannon" because he knows that "Gannon" will refrain from the tough questioning that Washington journalists are supposed to be known for no matter who's in the White House.

It turns out that Gannon/Guckert was attending press briefings before any entity called Talon News ever existed. So even the flimsy Talon News fig leaf proves inadequate. At that time he had one online column and nothing else to his name. His only other qualification stemmed from attending a two-day seminar on journalism run by an outfit called the Leadership Institute.

There are hundreds of people out there blogging who would have jumped at the chance to be Bush's shill, many of whom would not only have been better at it than Gannon was but would also have lacked the...um...unsavory connections that have helped push this scandal into the mainstream.

It would certainly help any President to have a compliant media he knew would ask him just the questions he wanted to answer. But you have to wonder if that alone was worth the risk incurred by having someone like Gannon/Guckert carry water for you in this manner.

There have two lines of speculation regarding the answer to Question #2 above.

One line revolves around Gannon's alleged male prostitution business and who inside the White House inner circle may have patronized it that might have precipitated strings being pulled on his behalf. Did he want to be a real journalist so badly that he pushed his way in (how's that for a double entendre?) to the corridors of power the only way he knew how? That someone with these kinds of ties could bypass the usual regulations placed on press passes may not say anything particularly flattering about how seriously this White House treats national security beyond its use as a pet campaign issue with which to hammer people less enthusiastic about neo-conservative adventurism.

The other - and far more interesting - line pertains to the leaking of the identity of CIA senior operative Valerie Plame to the media, disclosed to the public via an infamous column by Robert Novak. Did Gannon/Guckert play any role in this leak - was he being used as a patsy to do the administration's dirty work? His alleged connections to gay prostitution would make it easy for him to be discredited in the media - or blackmailed.

This Washington Post piece references Gannon interviewing Joe Wilson for an article referenced here. The money quote follows:
"I will tell you that the information did not come from inside the administration," Gannon told Talon News. "For something that is supposed to be classified, it seems that this document is easily accessible."

So what exactly, if anything, did he know? He claims on Free Republic that he was subpoenaed for testimony in the CIA leak probe but later denied that in a subsequent interview with Editor and Publisher magazine.

Gannon's interview with Joe Wilson, however, happened in October 2003, which is after a Wall Street Journal article describing the memorandum that was leaked. Though it's not difficult to imagine Gannon talking out of his hindquarters, claiming to have an inside connection he didn't really have to impress someone only to be exposed when his bluff got called...where exactly did he get this information? If he was only getting his information about the memo from the Journal why didn't he disclose that at some point and spare everyone the trouble?

But you don't have to go into the realm of conspiracy theories to find something seriously wrong with this. Even if both of the above lines is a total dead end...you've still got another example disturbing behavior from this administration. Maureen Dowd nails it here:

I'm still mystified by this story. I was rejected for a White House press pass at the start of the Bush administration, but someone with an alias, a tax evasion problem and Internet pictures where he posed like the "Barberini Faun" is credentialed to cover a White House that won a second term by mining homophobia and preaching family values?

At first when I tried to complain about not getting my pass renewed, even though I'd been covering presidents and first ladies since 1986, no one called me back. Finally, when Mr. McClellan replaced Ari Fleischer, he said he'd renew the pass - after a new Secret Service background check that would last several months.

In an era when security concerns are paramount, what kind of Secret Service background check did James Guckert get so he could saunter into the West Wing every day under an assumed name while he was doing full-frontal advertising for stud services for $1,200 a weekend? He used a driver's license that said James Guckert to get into the White House, then, once inside, switched to his alter ego, asking questions as Jeff Gannon.

The only thing I'd caution is not to let the more lurid aspects (Ooooh...gay porn! escorts! prostitution!) of this story obscure what's really important here - the WH planted an unqualified phony journalist as a shill in the press corps. And, furthermore, this shill may have played a role in the outing of Valerie Plame by GOP political operatives. The "gay prostitution" aspect of this is interesting only in that there's a certain irony in one being a shill for a President that's derived so much mileage from hostility to gays, and it's a big part of the "story" because it's the sort of salacious detail that sensationalist media types think can sell papers.

This is an administration that has paid journalists to shill for its policy initiatives, has invented fake news shows to hawk administration talking points, and is now planting fake journalists to cover them. That's the real bottom line.


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