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February 25, 2005

In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press

Before the certification of "Jeff Gannon" as a White House reporter there was the Bush Administration's de-certification move against the Washington press. These two things are deeply related.

The little Secret Service agent at the National Constitution Center seems more interested in John Ashcroft’s tight USA Patriot Act spin-tour schedule than any constitutional rights when he stops me from following a flock of television reporters heading for a brief presser with the man who could not even beat a corpse.

That’s Howard Altman of Philadelphia’s City Paper (Aug. 28, 2003) describing the experience of trying to cover Attorney General John Ashcroft during his speaking tour on behalf of the Patriot Act.

As the flock disappears down a hall in a hurried scurry, the bespectacled woman in the black dress who could have been Ainsley, the perky Republican from The West Wing, looks at me and waxes apologetic. “I am sorry,” she says as the last of the camera crews whiz by. “But he is not talking to print. Only talking to television.”

That was when I first became aware that the Bush Administration was putting an end to business-as-usual between the executive and the press. Ashcroft had Secret Service agents, or others in his employ, bar newspaper reporters—including of course those at the big national dailies—from press opportunities as he traveled the country arguing for the Patriot Act.

It was a sign: new sherriff in town. “We know who our friends are.” All that. Ashcroft wasn’t the first to declare local TV the only interview worth doing. Except there were certain ideas attached to his move, and these led outward from the Patriot Act into the wider political culture. Ideas like: Eliminate the filter (and guess who that is?) Howard Kurtz reported this on Sep. 15, 2003:

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock says her boss, with few exceptions, is only granting short interviews to local TV stations as a way of “explaining key facts directly to the American people and not having as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it.”

Ashcroft’s person tells us the story right there. She says it is legitimate to exclude the traditional press, and deny it the role of questioner on behalf of the public, because a.) this group has forfeited all claim to legitimacy by being so invested in a “different view;” and b.) the Attorney General is perfectly capable of explaining the key facts to the American people himself, with the kind assistance of local television stations (she did not say “reporters”) who know enough not to filter the message.

It is true that all Administrations want to speak to the nation in an unfiltered way; there’s nothing notable about that. All at one time or another see the press as “against” them. All cry foul— and in the name of the facts! Hating the press is normal behavior in the White House. So is favoring the sympathetic correspondent. What Ashcroft was doing went beyond all this.

There’s a difference between going around the press in an effort to avoid troublesome questions, and trying to unseat the idea that these people, professional journalists assigned to cover politics, have a legitimate role to play in our politics. Ashcroft was out to unseat that idea about the traditional press. He wanted it out of the picture of how you battle for public opinion.

“He is not talking to print. Only talking to television.”

John Ashcroft in the fall of ‘03 was simply doing his part in a broader de-certification move that has been mounted against the political press since 2001. His tactics turned out to be among the milder measures the Bush forces were willing to take in pursuit of a policy that I would call post press— meaning after it is declared from the top that journalists represent no one but themselves.

Before the certification of “Jeff Gannon” as a White House reporter who was good to go there was the Bush Administration’s de-certification move against the Washington press, which it felt had to go. These two things are deeply related.

The idea that joins them was stated by Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff: “They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election,” said Card. “I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”

See? No check and balance role. Not representative. That’s post-press thinking, coming from the Chief of Staff. It is a political innovation for which Bush does not get enough credit.

And here is what it yields in the press room, an emptiness described by Dan Froomkin at Nieman Watchdog in December:

Even more of a charade these days are the daily briefings held by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose robotic adherence to repeating the predetermined messages of the day — no matter what questions come his way — has driven some correspondents to despair. Only narcissists and cranks could possibly feel they are getting much out of asking a question at a McClellan press briefing. Not coincidentally, the cranks are increasingly sitting at the front of the briefing room and getting called upon, in part because some big media organizations don’t even bother to fill their assigned chairs anymore. What’s the point?

Recall what happened to the Air Traffic Controllers during Ronald Reagan’s first term. They were government workers—11,000 of them— fired in 1981 for going on strike when their contract said they couldn’t. They were replaced, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified their union.

“Jeff Gannon” (really James Dale Guckert) can be thought of as the replacement press, a fake journalist with a fake name working for a fake news organization, asking fake questions at a real press event. Until he asked one of President Bush that showed “unusually blatant sycophancy,” as the New Yorker’s Hendrick Hertzberg wrote.

This tipped off the bloggers and the online troops of column left, and the investigation of Gannon and Talon News, his fake employer, began. See this summary from Media Citizen, this resource from Daily Kos, this background from Media Matters, this page of reports from Salon.

But also see Stuck at the Gates by Jon Garfunkel, showing how blogger Eileen Smith of Oregon began an effort in February 2004 to investigate Gannon, which alerted Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post. But until January of this year the story didn’t go anywhere, even though Smith had asked about Gannon’s credentials, and begged the bigger blogs to look into it. The look is happening now. See the new blog Propagannon, devoted entirely to the investigation.

Tom Tomorrow in his comic strip This Modern World has the outrageousness of it exactly right. I also like Brian Montopoli’s description of what “Jeff Gannon” did with his moment in the national spotlight, from CJR Daily:

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.

But this is troubling only from the perspective of a certain history that it has been the Bush Admninistration’s business to refute and reject. Basically it is the history of professionalism in the political press, the attempt to establish a tradition of reportorial authority apart from raw politics. (See the New Yorker’s Nick Lemann on the weakening of this tradition.)

Creating “Jeff Gannon” as a credible White House correspondent, and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to de-certify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort, which stretches beyond the Bush team itself to allies in Republican Party politics, and new actors like Sinclair Broadcasting, or, or Hugh Hewitt, or these guys.

It is this larger picture that accounts for a professional tribe of journalists who, as Lemann said, “collectively felt both more harshly attacked and less important” in 2004. The more harshly attacked part comes from the Culture War rumbling below, while the message “you’re unimportant” is sent directly from the top.

Ron Suskind is one of the journalists most attuned to this part of the story, and in October of last year he told Eric Boehlert of Salon (who has also been following it) what he saw:

Do you think there’s a coordinated attempt to knock journalists down so that what they have to say is taken less seriously?

There is a varied, national, forceful, coordinated campaign to do that, to try to create doubt about the long-held and long-respected work of the mainstream media. Absolutely.

So that Americans believe that what we do and say, what the mainstream media offer, is not of value, is not honest, is not factually accurate. And [that we are] not in any way connected to strong traditions of American public dialogue, that we’ve been co-opted, that we’re not objective, and that essentially we are carrying forward an agenda.

That’s de-certification, in my lexicon. Out of it was born the Bush Thesis about the press, which I examined here and Ken Auletta reported on here.

Modern Fourth Estate thinking (which is only about 50 years old) held that the White House correspondents—the people who have the regular, “hard” passes—were one of the checks and balances in official Washington, and thus part of the political establishment any President had to work with.

The press had a certain power that came in part from its longevity on the scene—how long has Bob Woodward been in office?—but also because the news media were gatekeepers to the big national audience (the networks did that) and a bulletin board for the players in Washington politics (the big newspapers were that.)

The press was tameable, sure. It could be managed, and manipulated. It could be fed photo opportunities. There were different ways to play it, but the assumption held that this “beast” was going to be there in the White House every day, and at all the stops the President made. Realism alone called for a certain wary respect. The national news media were considered part of the process, a “fixture.” They were sometimes called the permanent government.

During the two terms of George W. Bush, this idea has been dethroned and declared invalid. Political journalism—such as might come from the Washington Post, Newsweek, or City Paper—was re-classified as a special interest, a kind of lobbying force for itself, or the opposition.

“For perhaps the first time,” Aluetta wrote, “the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful.” I summarized the new thesis in April 2004:

Behold the basics of President Bush’s press think. You don’t represent the public. You’re not a part of the checks and balances. I don’t have to answer your questions. And you don’t have that kind of muscle anymore.

Whomever declared “Jeff Gannon” a valid correspondent believed, first, in the invalidity of the regular White House correspondents, whose representatives had of course rejected Gannon for a regular pass. As he rejected them. Froomkin reported on it (March 10, 2004) in the White House Briefing column he does for the Washington Post:

Gannon works for a tiny, supremely conservative organization called Talon News which publishes a Web site by the same name as well as one called With the sole exception of Gannon, who says he is compensated, all the “reporters” are volunteers.

Gannon’s presence in the White House briefing room is something of an irritant to most of the press corps, which considers his questions at briefings to be preposterous softballs.

And in return, Gannon sometimes writes on his own Web site about his views of the corps and how there is “perhaps no depth to which it will not sink in order to undermine a presidency.”

In this view, there is no such thing as journalism; there is only raw politics. According to Media Matters, Gannon said on a Webcast radio show January 27th that the White House press corps “deserves to be gone around because they’re not telling the truth about Social Security reform.”

The key word is deserves. An illegitimate press demands not only national scorn but practical replacement. It is in this sense that “Jeff Gannon” deserved his press pass, Armstrong Williams deserved his $240,000, and Ketchum public relations deserved $97 million of taxpayer money to help the Bush Administration communicate the message.

(My sense is that the big uncovered facts in this scandal are to be found there, in the $97 million pot of post-press money that went to Ketchum, a PR firm willing to bend the rules, and help create a replacement for real journalism.)

In the press room of the White House that thinks itself post-press, many of the people who have been de-certified still show up for their jobs each day, expecting some kind of briefing, as if they were, still, the Fourth Estate, as if they yet had some role in national politics. It probably galls the Administration that the ritual with real journalists has to go on, since “they don’t represent the public any more than other people do.”

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Here’s some news, announced yesterday: I have been nominated for Blogger of the Year in 2004 by The Week magazine, as part of its second annual Opinion Awards. (Press release.) The other nominees are Power Line, Matthew Yglesias, Hugh Hewitt, and Low Culture. According to the letter they sent me, the Blogger of the Year award honors “bloggers who consistently produced work that was thoughtful, provocactive and that made a difference.” Thanks!

Is this site the Firefox of regional journalism? (See Scott Rosenberg’s superb rendering of why Firefox will thrive even if Microsoft scrambles to improve Internet Explorer.)

Eric Boehlert of Salon continues his standout coverage: “Why has the mainstream media ignored the White House media access scandal?”

Here’s an angle: Leading “new media” conservative website WorldNetDaily is furious at Gannon for being… a fake, an embarrassment to allies, a pretend conservative journalist, without the tools to succeed. Joseph Farah in a commentary:

There is no substitute for good journalism. There is no substitute for seeking the truth. There is no substitute for upholding high ethical standards. There is no substitute for fierce independence.

What the pretenders did backfired. They have hurt their own ideological cause more than they know. They have tarnished the image of the administration they championed. They have undermined the cause of the responsible New Media and the free press in America.

The rest is worth reading. Sounds remarkably like the Pseudo-Conservative Outrage Machine described by the Daily Howler.

Meanwhile, “Jeff Gannon” recently re-launched his website (Funny slogan… “A Voice of the New Media: So feared by the Left it had to take me down.”) AmericaBlog, one of the spear carriers on the story, has a point-by-point reply.

The best single text for understanding “Jeff Gannon” and his role in the White House press room is this video download from Keith Olbermann’s staff at MSNBC. It shows Scott McClellan relying on “Gannon” and not just for softball questions. “Go ahead, Jeff” is such a good title for this story.

Anyone interested in the “blogs mobilize” part of the Gannon story will be interested in this post, Battle For The Blogosphere: “How The Lefty Blogs Can Win The Blogosphere, Revive Their Party, And Save Our Country (And Why They Won’t).”

The Nashua Advocate adds some interesting detail about “Gannon” and his methods. In multiple posts, whyareweback keeps proving how fake Talon News is.

Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher: Both Houses of Congress Get Involved in ‘Gannon’ Case. Bears watching.

“I’d have no problem with an amateur like Jeff Gannon asking the President softball questions, if he were transparent about his political affiliation (‘Jeff Gannon, GOPUSA’ might work) and if I saw the President take hardball questions from liberal bloggers in return.” Sed politics has a different take. Check into it.

David Corn of The Nation has problems with Gannongate. (His term, not mine…)

White House daily briefings should be open to as diverse a group as possible. There is a need for professional accreditation; space is limited. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with allowing journalists with identifiable biases to pose questions to the White House press secretary and even the president… Last year, political bloggers—many of whom have their own biases and sometimes function as activists—sought credentials to the Democratic and Republican conventions. That was a good thing. Why shouldn’t Josh Marshall, Glenn Reynolds, John Aravosis, or Markos Moulitsas (DailyKos) be allowed to question Scott McClellan or George W. Bush?

Mark Cooper, who also writes for The Nation, has a similar take.

From the Observer in the UK: The mole, the US media and a White House coup: “The reporter who wasn’t is part of a wider press scandal, writes Paul Harris in New York.” The wider scandal is the subversion of the press. He gets most of it right, although a little breathlessly. Good on the bloggers role too.

The Los Angeles Times picks “confused fluff” as its genre for examining the Gannon Story. Johanna Neuman, “An Identity Crisis Unfolds in a Not-So-Elite Press Corps.” Weightless and banal, except for this idea at the end:

“I look at the Gannon story — I used to refer to him as Jeff GOP — as demonstrating the impact of televising the press briefing,” said Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University.

“The television lens has brought into the briefing room people who have a political viewpoint and find the briefing a way to express it.”

Wall Street Journal reporters Christopher Cooper and John D. McKinnon say it’s become about “fringe” characters:

Both the question and the questioner exemplify a steady evolution that has occurred in the White House briefing room in recent years. Once the clubby preserve of big-name newspapers and networks, it has lately become a political stage where a growing assortment of reporters, activists and bloggers function not only as journalists but as participants in a unique form of reality TV.

For background, see PressThink (April 25, 2004), Bush to Press: “You’re Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don’t Accept That.” And Ken Aueltta, Fortress Bush: How the White House keeps the press under control.

For a brief sketch, with links, of PressThink’s earlier attempts to piece together the Bush White House’s strategy of de-certifying the national press corps, beginning in fall of 2003, read on…”

It started, as I said in my post, with John Ashcroft: National Explainer. (September 16, 2003, shortly after PressThink’s debut.) Why Karen Ryan Deserved What She Got (March 31, 2004) was my second look at the Bush Administration’s assault on the practice of journalism— the impersonation of a reporter by PR woman Ryan.

In a follow up, Flacks Cannot Say They’re “Reporting” Anymore, (April 20, 2004) I told of pressuring the Public Relations Society of America to either declare what Ryan did wrong, or say out loud that they wouldn’t. (They did, meekly.)

My first look at the Bush Thesis, which I consider an imaginative leap in press relations, was A Prime Time News Conference Before a Special Interest: Make Sense to You? (April 13, 2004) I was asking: if Bush meant what he said about “just another special interest,” why would he call a press conference at a rocky moment? That led to Bush to Press: “You’re Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don’t Accept That.”(April 25, 2004) where I explained the Bush Thesis, and the de-certification impulse, in more depth.

I also learned something from the reactions. Many on the cultural right cheered my report on the Bush Thesis. They saw it as just, and just what was needed. They loved it that Bush stood up to journalists. (You represent the American public? I don’t think so.) For a time, Bush to Press was PressThink’s most heavily read post. The put down made sense to them. They saw no problem with it.

That reaction was one thing that led to There’s Signal in That Noise: The White House, the Reality Principle and the Press (June 23, 2004): “Not engaging with opponents’ arguments, not permitting discordant voices a hearing, not giving facts on the ground their proper weight, not admitting mistakes— all are of a piece with not letting the ‘liberal media’ cloud your thinking. This is the Bush way. And disengaging from the press has been a striking innovation of this White House.”

I examined the cultural front and the Right’s complaints with the press in Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes (Oct. 4, 2004), which tried to distinguish between those “frustrated and angry with the traditional news media,” who want changes in the institution, and another group, “posing as critics of bias,” who simply want to discredit and destroy it.

On. October 28, 2004, I was quoted by Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, “I think there’s a campaign under way to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism… It’s really an attack not just on the liberal media or press bias, it’s an attack on professionalism itself, on the idea that there could be disinterested reporters.”

In The Coming Apart of An Ordered World: Bloggers Notebook, Election Eve (Oct. 31, 2004) I told of getting phone calls from editors alarmed about the coordinated attacks they were feeling as the election drew closer. I also nominated Ron Suskind’s New York Times magazine article, “Without a Doubt” for campaign piece of the year— a heroic effort to describe the “leap” in thinking that the Bush team has made.

Then on the day after the 2004 election I wrote Are We Headed for an Opposition Press? “The Bush White House has the national press in a box,” I wrote. “As with so many other situations, they have changed the world and allowed the language of the old world to keep running while exploring unchallenged the fact of the new. The old world was the Fourth Estate, and the watchdog role of the press, the magic of the White House press conference. It was a feeling that, though locked in struggle much of the time, journalists and presidents needed each other. Although it was never put this way, they glamourized Washington politics together, and this helped both.

“In Bushworld, all is different.”

Finally, Bloggers Are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR described the falsification of journalism by means of a public relations firm, Ketchum, favored by the Bush Administration with $97 million in contracts, one of which went to conservative columnist Armstrong Williams.

Now the trail has led to Jeff Gannon, and In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press. As far as I’m concerned, it is all one story. But I do not pretend to understand it yet.

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 25, 2005 12:45 AM