Many folks have, up to now, heroically resisted delving into the seemingly sordid Jeff Gannon/James Guckert scandal about the marginally credentialed White House "reporter" with a salacious past and possible ties to the Bush White House. However, both Maureen Dowdy and Frank Rich of the Times have taken up this story, James Guckert has resumed speaking to the press (after a brief Garbo-like period), and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has been calling for inquiries, so this story may be around for a few more days.
Hence, for the benefit of those few holdouts, welcome to the Jeff Gannon/ James Guckert story!
Jeff Gannon came to fame during a Presidential press conference on Jan. 26 with a factually deficient question wondering how Bush could negotiate with Congressional Democrats who have "divorced themselves from reality" (See Dan Froomkin, Jan 27 WaPo).
Liberal bloggers were determined to learn more about Jeff Gannon and his employer, Talon News Service. Talon News Service is a web-based news service owned by Bobby Eberle, a small-time Texas political operator who also owns web-based GOPUSA. The connection to the Texas GOP immediately suggested a Rove-Bush connection to inquiring minds on the left.
And the Jeff Gannon backstory was truly unusual. Left wing bloggers quickly discovered that his real name was James Guckert, prompting questions about how many reporters operate under a pen name, and other questions about White House security procedures. And the real surprise - James Guckert was associated with several gay sex-for-hire websites (and his photos are circulating on the web). More questions - how, post9/11, could the Secret Service allow a fellow with such a dubious personal history into the White House? How could he possibly be eligible for a reporter's pass - surely there are standards? (Maureen Dowd wallowed in the sex and credentials angles, with her characteristic mix of innuendo and fact). Surely, one might suspect that Jeff Gannon had a Friend in High Places.
Frank Rich makes this "Media Manipulation Conspiracy Case", asserting (on no evidence) that Talon News and Jeff Gannon have been brought to us by the same folks who provided payola to reporters like Armstrong Williams, and who peddled faux-news videos out of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Finally, there was one more prominent hook to the Jeff Gannon story, but late-comers may find that is no longer a hot topic of discussion: Jeff Gannon was reported to have been subpoenaed by the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame leak, and there was some evidence that he had access to a leaked, classified intelligence memo. This angle caused much excitement amongst the investigators of the left, and eventually led Congresswoman Louise Slaughter to ask Special Counsel Fitzgerald to investigate this point. In fact, the Plame Connection was so exciting that the NY Times led with it on Feb 11 (we mock them here).
So, lots of questions - did Gannon have a patron in the White House, enabling him to slide past security? Did he receive a leak of classified documents? Is Special Counsel Fitzgerald ignoring him now as a favor to the White House? Did the White House set up a fake news service so that they had a friendly outlet with which they could plant stories, and so that White House Press Secretary could spot a friendly face in the room if a press briefing turned hostile?
The conspiracy-minded on the left are hoping that questions will suffice, and that the burden of proof will somehow shift over to the White House apologists (OK, that includes me). This will, the critics hope, present the apologists with the nearly impossible task of proving a negative - no one has found a smoking gun memo linking Karl Rove to Bobby Eberle, but that does not mean it does not exist, now does it?
However, to this knife-fight the apologists are bringing Occam's Razor - the questions raised by the critics have simpler, non-conspiracy minded answers.
Let's dig in - is Talon News a creation of Karl Rove? Who knows? But the alternative view is that Bobby Eberle, age 36, was simply pursuing a market opportunity - Fox News makes money, Rush Limbaugh makes money, and maybe a low-cost, web-based news service could make money. Attract some advertiser support (And some Scaife money? He denies having backers, and I have seen nothing to contradict that), and perhaps fame and fortune await. Land of opportunity!
And in this alternative view, Bobby Eberle will talk with a Texas twang and he may not shy from hinting that he has connections to Rove and Bush. However, although Karl Rove did give an interview to Talon News, evidence of a meaningful connection has not surfaced.
Well, what about the security question? Maureen Dowd got turned down for a White House pass - surely there are standards? Yes, there are (and stop calling me "Shirley".) However, Gannon was operating on a day pass, not a permanent White House "press pass" for which the standards (and entitlements) are higher. A day pass will not get a person on the President's plane to Europe, for example.
But did Guckert really have a hard pass, and might the White House be lying, or deeply confused, when they say it was a day pass? Dana Milbank of the WaPo could not persuade his editors to print this rumor, but he claimed on Keith Olbermann's television show that Gannon wore what looked like a hard pass.
Oops - there they go again. The left-wing "America's Blog" studied some non-salacious photos of Jeff Gannon, and concluded that he wore something around his neck, but not a White House hard pass. Possible explanation - Gannon, being a bit of a poseur, wanted the "hard pass" look - hard passes for the hard asses, if you will.
OK, then, how did Gannon get into a Presidential press conference? Those televised East Room extravaganza must have special security and clearances, right? Well, I imagine they do; however, Gannon asked his famous question at a hastily-called, impromptu press conference right down in Gannon's daily haunt, the Brady Room. It has been widely reported that Gannon was a regular there - the surprise was that Bush showed up (in an uncharacteristic display of non-omniscience, the ABC Note for Jan 26 failed to foresee Bush's press appearance.)
[UPDATE: Gannon claims to have been at other Presidential press conferences, and, per Dan Froomkin, asked a question at one of them. However, that conference was also impromptu (ABC Note, June 1, 2004).]
The Plame connection? Dan Froomkin of the WaPo identified a plausible alternative, now being picked up by Gannon himself in a Times interview (Feb 20/ Ralph Blumenthal) - the information on which Gannon relied had been reported in the Wall Street Journal several weeks [UPDATE: Uhh, eleven days] before Gannon used it in an interview with Amb. Joseph Wilson. Does that prove that Gannon did not receive a leak? Of course not, but what is the evidence that he did, and why did he sit on his story for two weeks [or even eleven days]? I have not seen any reported follow-up with Rep. Louise Slaughter on this - enterprising reporters might want to contact her.
Almost done - wouldn't Scott McClellan like having a friendly face in the briefing room, and isn't Talon News a useful outlet for Republican stories? Well, press room dynamics are such that there are other ways for Scott McClellan to wriggle out of a tight spot - Dan Froomkin cites Dana Milbank as reporting, for example, that Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe can always be counted on to ask about "the perfidies of Pakistan".
As to the idea that Karl Rove needs a place to plant his stories - the very notion is an affront to the hard-won reputations of Matt Drudge, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editors, the National Review, and the Weekly Standard.
Now, Dotty Lynch of CBS News has gone off-message, with the Rather ironic observation that, in the Daschle-Thune campaign, Gannon actually broke real news, such as details about Daschle's place of residence. "This guy (Gannon) became the dumping ground for opposition research", is a quote she runs from some Daschle aides, and surely CBS knows a dumping ground when they see one.
So, was Gannon too friendly with the Republican Attack Machine? What shall we make of journalist/blogger Josh Marshall, who is not afraid to reprint attacks on Evil Republicans, and has even stooped to recycling John Kerry press releases (that were based on erroneous AP reports!). Or, folks unfamiliar with Josh Marshall may remember when Nick Kristof elected to give his column over to a newly formed Bush attack group without troubling himself either to disclose their background or to verify their assertions.
The endgame for the Guckert saga is not clear. One hopes that lack of any evidence of wrongdoing will force the story to go away and stop bothering us. However, our Bold Prediction is that the Times editors, following the trail blazed by Dowd and Rich, will deliver a dire "questions remain unanswered" editorial sometime this week.
The critics may continue to invent allegations, and then insist that where there is smoke, there is fire. The apologists will continue to respond that sometimes, where there is smoke there are only people throwing smoke grenades.
MORE: Comments are open, of course. If there is a significant talking point from the left that I have omitted, it is due to my poor research rather than intelligent design.
Jeff Goldstein has been The Scourge of the Left on this story - this post has lots of useful mockery and links; scroll around for laughs and more.
Hindrocket blasts the character of folks who think that outing a gay reporter somehow advanced the national debate.
Finally, full disclosure, we are slowly becoming James Guckert fans here - a small-time hustler tried to make it as a reporter, and what blogger can not relate? Let's give him the last word, from his chat with Howard Kurtz:
"I've made mistakes in my past," he said yesterday. "Does my past mean I can't have a future? Does it disqualify me from being a journalist?"
America is the land of second chances.
UPDATE: The Unified Fantasy is available at the Daily Kos - James Guckert was instrumental in helping the White House steer the press away from the news that it was the White House that forged the TANG documents that brought down Dan Rather.
Although I rarely offer financial advice, I do so now - Go long tinfoil.