I happened to be listening to the radio on January 26th, when the president called on “Jeff” at a news conference. Jeff wondered how Mr. Bush was going to be able to work with Democratic leaders “who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” That was the most absurdly partisan question I had ever heard from a reporter, and I wondered who the hell he was. Turned out, I was not the only one wondering about that.
Soon afterward, liberal bloggers, led by a team of volunteers affiliated with The Daily Kos, decided to find out. It turned out that “Jeff Gannon” was a fake name; that he was a fake reporter; and he worked for a fake news organization. Jeff, aka James D. Guckert, was a Republican Party operative who worked for a propagada organization called GOPUSA. He had been rejected for membership in the House Press Gallery because he could not demonstrate that Talon News was an independent news organization. But he was given day passes for two years by the White House Press Office — thus avoiding the customary security investigation. He was allowed to sit four rows from the White House press secretary — and sometimes the president — apparently in order to lob them softball questions when they got in a jam.
But Guckert was more than a partisan operative infiltrating and undercutting the press corps in order to assist the White House spin machine. An FBI background check would likely have uncovered what the bloggers found out — that Guckert was the owner of several web sites that apparently advertised his services as a prostitute. Bloggers at The Daily Kos first uncovered these web sites, but John Aravosis at AmericaBlog, obtained invoices that showed Guckert had apparently owned and created the web sites and provided the content — including provocative photos advertising his services for $200 an hour or $1200 a weekend. Guckert told Anderson Cooper on CNN that “…I have made mistakes in my past. These are of a personal and private nature…”. Beyond that, he neither admitted nor denied anything, but when asked, he insisted that neither his employer nor the White House knew anything about his, ahem, private activities.
This was very clever spin. This aspect of the story is not about Guckert’s private life; it is about his paid, publicly advertised professional life. I have yet to see any published information on Guckert’s actual private life. In media interviews, Guckert has not denied, but he has refused to discuss his true profession. Over the past two weeks, the mainstream media has picked up on the story in fits and starts, but it has mostly been the bloggers who have unearthed new details on an almost daily basis. Guckert resigned from Talon News on February 9th, and all of his stories were purged from its web site — but Guckert’s male escort web sites are now apparently hot properties — and are up for sale.
Among the many scandalous aspects of L’Affaire Gannon, Guckert and Talon News also figure into the investigation of the Bush administration’s leak of the name of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson had angered the administration when he revealed in an op-ed in The New York Times, that when the Bush administration sent him to Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought to purchase uranium, he found no evidence that it had. This finding undercut the Administration’s claim that that Iraq had done so, as president Bush had claimed in a speech to Congress justifying the war. As it turned out, the only evidence the president had was a fake memo of uncertain provenance.
Gannon interviewed Ambassador Wilson, and published this question: “An internal government memo prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel details a meeting in early 2002 where your wife, a member of the agency for clandestine service working on Iraqi weapons issues, suggested that you could be sent to investigate the reports. Do you dispute that?” Well, CIA officials say that Plame had not been at the meeting, but the question now being publicly aired, is how did non-reporter Guckert get access to a classified memo? Speculation is rife that Guckert and Talon News were and are part of a wide-ranging White House propaganda effort that has included the smearing of Wilson and the outing of Plame.
As White House Correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for Talon News, Gannon was best known for taking White House press releases and putting them out under his byline as if they were his own words. Another Talon News writer, Steve Roeder has been accused of routinely plagiarizing material from Fox News, Reuters, and The New York Times, according to Raw Story, (citing progressive blogger, Ron Brynaert) which has closely followed the unfolding of the Gannongate scandal.
While it has taken some time, the scandal is now spreading rapidly: For example over the past few days Raw Story, obtained a letter being circulated by U.S. Senate Democrats, formally requesting President Bush to launch a full investigation. How, they wonder, did a fake reporter, working for a “sham” news organization gain access to the White House? Salon reports that Guckert was attending White House news conferences before Talon News even existed. And not only did Guckert enjoy unusual access to the White House via the press office, but Salon further reports that he was invited to White House Christmas parties in 2003 and 2004.
The Daily Kos is maintaining an investigative file on the unfolding scandal, adhering to the philosophy of “open source.” Media Matters for America, founded by former conservative activist David Brock, has also been dogging the Gannongate story and pressing for a formal investigation.
The remarkable, and unprecedented collaborative investigation by the blogging community has caused some in the mainstream media fits and embarrassment. “Jeff” had sat amidst the elite of the American and international press corps for two years: he was called on by the president; he asked loaded partisan questions — and not one of them had bothered to look into Gannon or his obviously fake news organization.
OK, time to get over it.
Gannongate is not really about bloggers or the injured pride of the White House press corps and the journalism profession. It’s increasingly apparent that this is a story about a covert propaganda operation that infiltrated the White House press corps, very likely with the collaboration and direction of the White House staff. That the operative may also have been a prostitute is interesting, but not as interesting as the planting of Guckert inside the White House press corps and the activities he carried out at the behest of his sponsors.