Stuck at the Gates

“Jeff Gannon” was originally outed as a conservative operative in the White House press room one year ago. Why did the story take so long to break?


STAGE ONE: Making contact

The first published report of the existence of Jeff Gannon as a fake reporter came from Eileen Smith of Oregon on February 18, 2004; she even launched her own blog, webdems to break the story:

Would you be surprised to learn that (as White House reporters are browbeaten daily) a seat in the fourth row of the WH briefing room is occupied by a volunteer for a rinky-dink right-wing “news service” whose reporters include a personal trainer, a scout camp director, an aerospace employee, and a high-school student? This volunteer, credentialed by the White House, is a denizen of the barely credible web forum Read down; this gets worse.

Talon News Service is obviously a silly and kooky wannabe outfit. And yet a precious seat in the fourth row of the White House briefing room is Gannon’s. He boasts on freerepublic about asking questions designed to elicit “gasps” from the real correspondents.

In the 2,000-word post, Smith also called for the development of a “bill of rights” demanding greater accountability from the press corps. She later explained that she was able to get this scoop simply by monitoring FreeRepublic “almost every day for the last eight years.”

Smith did not post any links to any of the posts on freerepublic, the well-known conservative discussion forum. Neither did she identify herself; Dan Froomkin did in the Washington Post column after she sent him a tip. He devoted 500 words of his 3,000-word column to this item. Froomkin noted that it was actually common knowledge: “Within the press corps, Gannon is known for asking softball questions.” At the end of the note, Froomkin practically begged for help researching. “Do any of you know of blogs that are ‘adopting’ members of the White House press corps?”

No reaction

And there the trail lay dormant. Neither of these posts were enough to get the story going. I’ve theorized before that there are critical hubs– or gates, if you will– by which Internet-borne political scandals must pass before amplified. Let’s get a snapshot of those blogs from that week.

The substance of the February 18th press conference had actually been the the White House’s downgraded confidence in the job numbers. This was the thrust of Froomkin’s piece, as it was for Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, and also Brad DeLong, a former economic advisor in the Clinton White House. Another one of the liberal hubs, Atrios, cited DeLong’s comments. There is no mention of Gannon in Daily Kos in all of 2004.

On the next tier, Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly and Matthew Yglesias at TAPPED also picked up this angle as well– Drum citing Yglesias citing DeLong. Other popular stories that day were gay marriage (which many, including Andrew Sullivan, posted on) and the release of a report on the Bush administration from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Also there was that front-page news story– Howard’s History— the headline to Slate’s “Today’s Paper” summary of the news about the end of the Dean campaign.

Granted, one of the curiosities of the liberal blogs is that few practice the classic tradition of ditching the soapbox and simply providing links. As I’ve calculated, the above bloggers average less than ten posts per day. Sullivan and Atrios, whose posts tend to be shorter and more frequent, posted 11 and 9 times, respectively. By comparison Bush backer Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit had 28 separate posts that day. ABC’s The Note, sent out each weekday morning with links to stories in the news: 64 that day. Neither of those mentioned Froomkin or Gannon.

Second try

On March 7th, Smith returned to the story once more, after learning that Gannon’s name was among those in the subpoenae for the grand jury investigating the primary media scandals– who had leaked Valerie Plame’s covert identity to columnist Robert Novak. This was Smith’s final appeal on her blog for the year:

Here’s hoping one of the “kool kids” with proximity, a research budget and Nexis will ask some questions regarding Talon and its inexplicable seat in the WH briefing room and also ask about the sources who are providing information about secret internal documents of the White House to a seeming stooge in the briefing room. Now that Gannon’s on the subpoena list and he’s lawyered up, his actions are newsworthy.

Froomkin also wrote on March 10 about Gannon, taking note of the coincidence. But it wasn’t meant to be; no one picked up on this.

Looking back

The further irony is that at by the end of March, Froomkin helped build the Nieman Watchdog site at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. One of the premises of this site is that questions should remain “on the table”– literally– by staying on the website. Naturally, over the course of the Presidential campaign, most of the questions focused on the candidates and not the press. After the election, Froomkin wrote a piece about the decline of press conferences under Bush, published in Salon as well as in on the Nieman Watchdog, which allowed for comments.

Among the respondents– Eileen Smith, reminding Froomkin (“as you already know…”) of her months-old mission to restore the credential duties to the White House Correspondents Association (which has been retained by the White House since the end of World War II). And then, even more remarkable, three days latter– Jeff Gannon himself: “If the press corps was more interested in real answers instead of helping to promote a political agenda, perhaps there would be more press conferences.”

The only thing I could find more ironic was the praise given to Smith on the Democratic Underground bulletin boards, on February 10th, after it was pointed out that she was one of their own (posting as “grasswire” over a thousand times). The praise was due, of course, but no one paused to ask why the story had sat for a year. Smith gave some insight into the answer with her post on the thread:

When I wrote the Gannon story on my blog, I proposed a Peoples Bill of Rights for Media-White House Transparency as a possible way to apply pressure for reform of the relationship between reporters and WH. I started a draft. I tried to get some interest in the story here on [Democratic Underground], with no luck. I contacted David Brock at Media Matters. No response. I contacted other influential sites. No response.

Media Matters did not exist in its present form then; it launched in May of 2004. I contacted Eileen at her webdems email address to seek clarification (No response.)

Froomkin, addressing questions from readers on February 9th, explained how he had seen the story develop over the year.

Over the past year, I occasionally thought it was worth noting, when Gannon was called on at the daily briefing and responded with a really outrageous softball, that he was in fact not with what I would consider a legitimate media organization. I did that for months, and everything really hit the fan when he did it at a presidential news conference.

STAGE TWO: It hits the fan

Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the US economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse.
— Jeff Gannon, lead-in to a question for President Bush, in press conference of January 26th

Watching the press conferemce, David Brock of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters smelled a rat, and asked his team to investigate the story. They filed a report, citing Froomkin’s reporting over the year. They start applying the heat to Gannon. By Tuesday, February 1st, Media Matters reported that information was being pulled from the Talon News website (it is all gone now). The next day the Boston Globe runs the story. The story still sat for a few days.

In a parallel effort, SusanG of Daily Kos read Media Matters that first day, and picked up on the Gannon connection to another still-simmering scandal, the identity leak of Joseph Wilson’s wife. She began a series of investigative diary posts each beginning with the lead-in: “White House-credentialed fake news reporter ‘Jeff Gannon’ from fake news agency ‘Talon News’ was cited by the Washington Post as having the only access to an internal CIA memo that named Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA agent.” Within a few days she assembled an ad hoc investigative team in the Daily Kos community to tackle the story: who was Jeff Gannon, his connection to GOPUSA backer Robert Eberle, what did he know about the Plame memo. On the 1st she gave it the name PropoGannon. Gannon’s real name, “James Guckert” is uncovered at various times, though only solidly confirmed by the 6th or 7th. Atrios reported on Sunday that he has a source linking to Guckert, but for all anybody knows those sources may have been Kos participants. The World O’ Crap blog summarizes the speculation the next day.

And, ironically, that’s the first time the Gannon/Guckert is mentioned om the Daily Kos main page– the page that the every visitor to the Daily Kos sees. Kos misses the whole Plame angle, and instead dwells on the fact that “James Guckert” is listed as the websites suggesting male escort services. Shortly thereafter he added this update: “There is some concern that focus on the more salacious details of Gannon’s hypocrisy detracts from more substantive discussions and investigations currently going on by various diariests.”

And from there the dam broke. That night, Gannon posted a note on his website that he resigned. (see Timothy Karr’s report) The fact that Gannon was pseudonym (what sort of White House security allows this?) touched a nerve with many. The male prostitute angle also added a bit of sizzle– after all he had lambasted Kerry’s “gay agenda” during the Presidential campaign? As the name of the defunct website “Media Whores Online” suggested, there may be small steps from being a journalist, to being a flack, to being, well, a prostitute for some agenda.

Among media critics, much of the focus was still on Eason Jordan, the CNN executive whose comments at the World Economic Forum had brought a backlash. I posted to a link to the webcred log, adding the comment: “Ok, mediamatters has been at this story for TWO WEEKS NOW about a GOP plant at the White House press briefings and everyone’s hung up on Eason Jordan?” That storm passed when Jordan resigned on the 11th.

Maybe media critics could only handle one story at a time. Eason Jordan having resigned because what was dubbed “Easongate”, Gannon re-entered the picture. So let’s go to work.

STAGE THREE: The Corps of the Problem

In Froomkin’s chat, he added some interesting context about Gannon: “he’s not the only crank there.”

Now, the 280 million of us who haven’t troubled with finagling access to the White House Press Room might be awful curious to find out who the other cranks are in the press corps.

What’s funny, if you read a sober book of press criticism like Breaking the News, James Fallows takes reporters to task for reporting “insider” accounts. You don’t get much more inside-media and inside-politics than inside the White House press room. Talk about the issues— and to their credit, White House reporters do. But then again, what if nobody had investigated a third-rate burglary at the Watergate hotel?

One more player is missing, a media critic popular on the web. Jay Rosen, a Professor of Journalism at New York University, has built his advocacy for public journalism on the premise that journalists are actors in the political process. In Rosen’s model, the bar of professionalism is artificial, and there’s no reason that a man calling himself “Jeff Gannon” can’t take a seat in the press room. But, by extension, Jay Rosen and many of the blogging evangelists have called for greater transparency of who’s who in the media. In the end, it was transparency itself that drove Gannon out of the press room; not an elite group of reporters. Rosen neglected to cover this angle on his PressThink blog.

Who’s who in the press corps

A poster to Daily Kos relayed a comment off of Atrios, which cited a three-year old article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post “Wrapping Up Tough Questions With Foil”. In it he reveals that there are many such “foils” in the press corps, often foreign correspondents, who can be called upon to change the topic. Joe Lockhart, press secretary during the waning years of the Clinton Presidency, admitted to using them to get out of tough spots. One favorite is Raghubir Goyal, India Globe, who is nickamed the “Goyal Foil.” Here are other names Milbank cites:

Jacobo Goldstein, CNN Radio Noticias; Connie Lawn, freelancer; Keith Koffler, Congress Daily; April Ryan, American Urban Radio Network; Russell Mokhiber, Corporate Crime Reporter; Lester Kinsolving, Baltimore radio personality; Miguel Sandoval, “unknown affiliation.”

Milbank later followed up in an interview with SusanG for Daily Kos: “There are so many characters, in fact, that reporters who have the reserved seats often would skip the briefing/circus. This allowed the Gannon types to grab seats.”

Leading us to wonder. Amidst all the calls for journalistic transparency– why is there no list who is a regular member White House Press Corps? The White House Correspondents Association offers no help on their website. Part of the promise of distributed journalism rests on the ability of the the distributed– the people– to be able to read through pages of online documents. Why are the reporter’s names not transcribed in the White House transcripts? And a bigger question– what is the point of the correspondents association, beyond hosting those hokey-jokey dinners where the President gets to try out a few jokes? Can we get serious here?


I don’t hear many people now desiring that “Jeff Gannon” return to the White House press corps, so I can safely assume that most would agree that the earlier he was outed from the room, the better. Whether it would have changed the election, who’s to say. But we cannot have an effective democracy if press conferences become a circus.

Once again the bloggers are given credit, though that’s using bloggers in the broadest sense: “people not in the professional media who otherwise play a role in constructing and disseminating information.” (This definition unfortunately ropes in PR flacks and buzz agents). The top political bloggers, which I call the pundisphere, failed to grab onto the story over the course of 2004 (i.e., when it counted). The key players who developed the story were the Media Matters team of professional researchers, and the a team of amateur researchers coming together on Daily Kos. If one thing unites them, it’s perhaps that they did their research with some degree of privacy. No casual reader of Daily Kos would have any inkling what was going on in the diaries, the user community. As it turned out, neither did Kos.

We may be moving to a media world without gatekeepers, as Jay Rosen suggests, but there’s still going to be gates. Anybody interested in moving stories forward has to understand how they can get stuck at the gates.

Moving Forward

SusanG and Brian Kelly have moved the story out of Daily Kos onto a custom site, Propagannon, which they are using to continue to investigate the story. It has been specially designed to handle collaborative investigative research. Over four hundred volunteers have registered. Some of the latest research has asjed why Gannon was sited in the room before getting a press pass; how he had come to learn of the Iraq invasion four hours before it started.

Perhaps this could have bounced around the blogosphere in 2004 if the protagonists had lobbied a few people a little harder.

I’m not sure why Smith was unable to flag down any more help. I am waiting to hear back from her. A year ago, the only major success of the bloggers had been in bringing down Trent Lott. And that was mostly the work of a few pundit-bloggers, Josh Marshall especially.

Froomkin, as a reporter who doubles as a journalism reformer in academia, could have been a bit more creative. He could have propposed an arrangement with Smith: you give me ink, I’ll give you link. Froomkin could have cited Smith or the webdems site in his March 10th column, suggesting that readers check it out if they want to follow-up on the open questions. When I hear that “reporters should use bloggers,” this is perhaps a very specific purpose where direct teamwork would be necessary. I would imagine that journalists, particularly those for national papers, get loads of tips. They really would benefit tremendously by having a trusted volunteer act as a gatekeeper. The volunteer may have to keep their ego in check, and may not even blog. I’ll keep watching the Nieman Watchdog.

But overall, we’re awash in commentary and it’s growing impossible to sort through. I would suggest that citizen-reporters master two arts: one, of writing things in a twenty-five words or less; and two, writing things in a thousand words or more. The thousand-word articles would be well-researched primary sources, which stringers are certainly capable of writing. The shorter blurbs will be well suited, as I have suggested, to be tagged linklogs, which can be better organized and shared, and are less of a trudge to be able to browse through than blogs. In the middle is a mush of writing, and reading them all sometimes has all the coherence of reading a letters-to-the-editor page.

If we want to believe in the possibilities of distributed investigative journalism, than we have to recognize the problems we have today, and start working on better tools.

update 2/24: Cleaned up the text a bit. Ron Brynaert has been researching Talon News’s plagiarism from other papers; he got a tad upset about other plagiarizing his research. Anyways, he pointed me to some research about prior knowledge about Gannon from the Nashua Advocate: “members of the media knew Gannon lied about his identity to the Daschle campaign in the summer of 2003.”
update March 6th: Over the last week, I have been able to successfully contact, and have email exchanges with, SusanG, Eileen Smith, and other sources for this story. Also, Jay Rosen has now turned his PressThink over to this effort, starting with a In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press on 2/25; De-Certifying the Press on Friday, and today asks what Instead of the White House Press, You Envision What?. I am working on an updated version of this piece for another publication.