The emails keep pouring in with this plea: Investigate Gannongate! These messages are obviously part of a campaign among liberal Internet activists who believe the controversy concerning Jeff Gannon (aka James Guckert) has not received sufficient media attention. Gannon/Guckert was a conservative reporter for a marginal news outfit who obtained a daily pass to the White House press office and who also apparently was seeking customers as a gay, military-oriented prostitute. Serious questions do remain as to why and how the Bush White House's press operation granted access to Gannon/Guckert, a correspondent for the Talon News. Should a fellow with a fake identity--and a questionable background--be allowed into presidential press conferences? Talon News was connected to GOPUSA, an organization run by Texas-based Republican activist Bobby Eberle, and Gannon/Guckert routinely asked softball questions of Bush's press secretaries during their daily White House briefings. But throughout this scandal, I have wondered if the Gannon affair may be smaller than it seems. I expressed several concerns in an earlier column. Still, in response to the emails, I decided to heed the call and look further. What I found leads me to ask--gasp!--if Gannon/Guckert, on a few but not all fronts, has received a quasi-bum rap.
Let me stipulate that how Gannon/Guckert came to be permitted into the White House press room is a worthy topic of inquiry. But his pursuers ought to be careful on this point. Talon News was a fly-by-night (or phony) news operation with a political agenda. But 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. And if such a reporter asks a dumb question--as did Gannon/Guckert (which triggered this scandal)--the best response is scorn and further debate. Bloggers should think hard when they complain about standards for passes for White House press briefings. 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? Do we want only the MSMers to have this privilege?
If Gannon/Guckert did receive preferential treatment--because of his ideological bent or any other reason--that would be wrong and a matter for the White House to explain. But let's move on to his personal (or other professional) life. Bloggers have made much of his apparent effort to earn a buck as a prostitute for men. This is not gay-baiting, they say, it's hypocrisy. The question is, hypocrisy on whose part? On Gannon/Guckert's? He's been accused of being a gay-baiter. But how true is that? As part of my investigation, I had my assistant, Alexa Steinberg, search through a collection of Gannon/Guckert's articles for pieces on gay-related themes. She found eight pieces. Most were straightforward accounts of political tussles over gay marriage. Here's a representative sample, from a July 7, 2004, article:
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) faces a difficult vote in the Senate when Republicans bring the Federal Marriage Amendment to the floor in the next two weeks. Sponsors of the bill say the constitutional amendment to preserve traditional marriage as the union of one man and one woman is necessary to counter activist judges who have allowed homosexual unions in Massachusetts.
Passage of the FMA is uncertain in the Senate, since it will require 67 votes. Daschle will have to decide whether to allow a floor vote or prevent it with a filibuster. The choice is fraught with peril since the South Dakota senator realizes whatever he does will impact either his chances of reelection or his position as Minority Leader.
Daschle received a 100% rating from the nation's leading gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, in recognition of his efforts during the 2001-2002 Senate session. Despite his 1996 vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, Daschle has championed causes supported by the homosexual lobby in his role as Democratic leader.
Cheryl Jacques, HRC president said, "The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and our allies will hold senators who vote for the FMA accountable with our votes in November."
Here's another (from February 5, 2004):
Four justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a majority advisory opinion Wednesday, saying a bill that would allow for civil unions but not marriage, makes for "unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples."
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the justices said in the opinion.
With that, the battle lines sharpened in the culture war over homosexual rights and instantly made "gay marriage" an issue in the 2004 elections. The subject has been difficult for Democrats seeking the presidential nomination, recognizing that a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. But at the same time, they realize that Democrats receive nearly all of the political support of gay rights activists.
None of Democrat candidates for president have unequivocally come out in favor of gay marriage, but all support civil unions. Even Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) did not endorse gay marriage, despite the fact that his lesbian daughter Crissy was actively involved in his campaign for the nomination.
This is pretty tame stuff. Gannon/Guckert's critics have pointed to an article in which he observed that John Kerry might become "the first gay president." This was not a slam on Kerry or an insinuation about Kerry's private life. The piece began:
Inasmuch as Bill Clinton is considered by some members of the African-American community to be "the first black president" because of their perception of his positions with regard to minority issues, Democratic Sen. John Kerry might someday be known as "the first gay president" were he to win the White House in November.
The Massachusetts liberal has enjoyed a 100% rating from the homosexual advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), since 1995 in recognition of his support for the pro-gay agenda.
Despite his stated opposition to gay marriage, Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who also boasts a 100% rating from the HRC, can expect to receive a high percentage of the gay vote, estimated to be around 4 million. Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 and both candidates oppose the constitutional amendment to protect marriage sought by President Bush.
Gannon/Guckert clearly was writing for a conservative audience. But he was hardly a flame-thrower on gay issues. His observation about Kerry was clumsy but not homophobic. Sure, he worked for an organization that supported an administration and party opposed to gay rights, and he was a Bush-backer. But does that automatically qualify him for outing? Should a lesbian reporter who works at the Wall Street Journal or at any metropolitan daily that editorializes against gay marriage be outed? Reporters are not elected officials. They do not legislate the behavior of others. Once Gannon/Guckert became an issue, his past--or present--as a male hooker was newsworthy, at least in a descriptive sense. But as a line of attack against him, it may be too much. I recognize this distinction might be hard to draw. But he has been hounded for being a gay male hooker. Should we even care if a reporter is moonlighting on the side in this fashion? I don't--let Helen Thomas be a professional dominatrix in her free time--unless that reporter explicitly claims to be a person of family values or publicly decries homosexuality or prostitution. I have not seen evidence that Gannon/Guckert struck such a stance.
Should the White House have handed a daily press pass to a reporter who turned tricks on the side? Was it hypocritical of the Bush White House to have done so? Was it a security lapse to let a pseudonymous fellow and possible felon close to the president? Gannon/Guckert and Talon ought to have been vetted more closely regarding their journalistic credentials. But I will not gripe if the White House press office decides it is not its job to investigate the personal lives and websites of those who apply for access to the press room. Some of Gannon/Guckert's critics have suggested that he was allowed into the White House due to some sort of gay connection. One site has used the Gannon/Guckert affair to float unsubstantiated rumors about the sex life of Scott McClellan. This is fair game--but only for journalistic investigation, not for throw-it-and-see-if-it-sticks postings. If there is evidence that McClellan is a gay GOP hypocrite or that Gannon/Guckert had an advantage because he was literally in bed with a White House official, that's a news story. Otherwise, it's smear-by-blogging. Last year, I spent months talking to a professional dominatrix who claimed she had been hired several times by a prominent Republican who does the family-values shtick. I examined her allegations the best I could. But I could not substantiate her claim, which I found credible. I had nothing to publish, nothing specific to blog.
It's certainly embarrassing to the Bush White House that its press operation accepted a reporter who was an actual or wannabe prostitute. But this is not the same as paying columnists to shill for the administration, producing pro-administration propaganda packaged as news reports, mounting fake town meetings, or restricting the number of press conferences. And to date there is no compelling evidence that the White House recruited or deployed Gannon/Guckert as a plant. It really had little cause to do so. Both Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan have demonstrated they can duck questions ably on their own.
On to another matter in this scandal of many folds. The Gannon/Guckert controversy has merged into the Wilson leak affair. Gannon/Guckert's critics note that in an interview he conducted with former Ambassador Joe Wilson, which was published on October 28, 2003, Gannon/Guckert referred to a classified intelligence memo that claimed Wilson had been sent to Niger (to investigate the allegation that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium for a nuclear weapons program) at the suggestion of his wife. Gannon/Guckert was echoing a point made by Wilson's antagonists, who opposed the investigation into the leak that appeared in a Robert Novak column identifying Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA operative. Gannon/Guckert's pursuers ask who gave him this classified memo? Was the White House using a gay male hooker as an operative in its fierce campaign against Wilson? (CIA officials told reporters the information in the memo was wrong.)
Had Gannon/Guckert been used by the White House in such a fashion, it would give Gannongate a much more sinister cast. Gannon/Guckert has not said who provided him this memo--or even if he had it in hand. According to Gannon/Guckert, FBI agents working on the Wilson leak inquiry did question him about the memo, but he has not been subpoenaed by Patrick Fitzgerald, the Justice Department attorney in charge of the quasi-independent investigation. Gannon, though, has pointed to a Wall Street Journal article that appeared eleven days before the interview with Wilson was published. What is striking is that the language Gannon/Guckert used to describe the memo during his interview with Wilson is nearly identical to the Journal's description. Here's the question Gannon asked Wilson:
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?
Here's what the Journal had earlier reported:
An internal government memo addresses some of the mysteries at the center of the White House leak investigation and could help investigators in the search for who disclosed the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative, according to two people familiar with the memo.
The memo, prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel, details a meeting in early 2002 where CIA officer Valerie Plame and other intelligence officials gathered to brainstorm about how to verify reports that Iraq had sought uranium yellowcake from Niger.
Note the similarities. To ask the question Gannon/Guckert posed to Wilson, he did not need to possess that memo. He only needed to have read the Journal. It's possible he was leaked the same document. But the simpler explanation appears to be he saw it in the Journal. After all, if the White House--or Republicans on Capitol Hill--wanted to leak anti-Wilson material, they had plenty of better options than a fellow who worked for a piddling news service.
Nevertheless, Gannon/Guckert's critics have called for Fitzgerald to chase after him. Most recently, Representatives Louise Slaughter and John Conyers, two liberal Democrats, have written Fitzgerald and asked him to subpoena the journal Gannon/Guckert kept while he worked at the White House for Talon. (Gannon/Guckert resigned from Talon after the scandal broke.) In their letter, the House members characterize Gannon/Guckert as "a person in the White House briefing room who had access to a memo revealing the [CIA's] operative's name." They note that "Mr. Guckert had access to classified information." This description is misleading. Valerie Wilson's name had been disclosed months earlier--not by this memo. And, as noted above, it is uncertain--perhaps unlikely--that Gannon/Guckert had access to this memo. Still, they have egged on Fitzgerald to subpoena Gannon/Guckert's notes.
This would be a terrible move. Fitzgerald is already trying to destroy the ability of reporters to obtain information from confidential sources. He has subpoenaed Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times and requested they identify sources. An appeals court recently ordered the pair, who have so far resisted, to cooperate. The case is heading toward the Supreme Court--which is not expected to be kind to the journalists--and Cooper and Miller could end up in jail. Now Slaughter and Conyers want to compound the damage Fitzgerald is doing to journalism by pushing him to subpoena a reporter's notes. Fitzgerald should not be encouraged--especially when the case is weak that Gannon/Guckert had any access to classified information.
The Slaughter/Conyers letter shows how far off the rails well-intentioned people can go when scandal is in the air. I would not discourage anyone from responsibly investigating the questions that linger in the Gannon/Guckert affair. Perhaps the story will lead to further--and more serious--revelations of White House wrongdoing. But with the blogosphere ready-made for piling on and for the fast and widespread transmission of inaccurate information, the Gannon/Guckert tale has been susceptible to distortion. I have no brief for Gannon/Guckert. I am a fan of blogging and celebrate the rise of web-based independent researchers who can pursue matters ignored or neglected by the old media. But the limited inquiry I conducted convinces me that in this brave new world of blogging it is easy for information to outpace accuracy. Those e-mails I have received are, in a way, right: we need investigation, but investigation that can keep up with dissemination.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation magazine.
By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation