The News Is Broken
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 11 February 2005
Once upon a time, working the White House Press Briefing Room was the crown jewel of mainstream political journalism
beats. That was it; short of reporting live from under the President's desk or nailing down an interview with the ghost
of Abraham Lincoln, you weren't going to get a better gig if you were a political reporter.
To hold such a position was also to be the repository for a great responsibility. If you are privileged enough to be
placed there, if you have put in the time as a reporter to earn the right to be there, you are the first line of defense
in the eternal struggle between the rights and well-being of the people and governments that are always willing and
ready to lie, cheat and steal in our name and 'for our own good.'
All governments lie. That is what they do. A reporter in the White House Press Briefing Room bears the burden of being
the person whose role it is to speak truth to power, to write down what happens after speaking truth to power, and to
beat their editors and publishers about the head and shoulders to make sure that truth is delivered to the people
We perhaps like to imagine the men and women in that briefing room - if we take the time to think of them at all - as
people with big ears and sharp eyes, with too many pens in their pockets, a rolodex with every important name on the
planet sitting on their desks, a hand well used to holding a glass of scotch, an unspoken promise to keep sources
protected to the bitter end, and a bedrock sense of being beholden to nothing and no one beyond the integrity and
mission of their chosen profession. 'Without Fear or Favor,' goes the refrain.
Something like that might have existed at one time in our history. Certainly, careerism has always played a part in the
reporting of any journalist in that briefing room. Make the administration spokesperson angry enough and he or she will
pull your pass, thus humiliating you and derailing your climb up the ladder. Probably a lot of reporters have let
important stories drop in order to preserve their access and their careers, but the really good ones report the stuff
anyway, and they wind up being the ones asked to speak at the commencement for the Columbia School of Journalism. Ask
Seymour Hersh what it means to be a good journalist. He can tell you.
Something like that might have once existed, but it is almost completely gone now. The sad and sordid tale of Jeff
"Don't Call Me Guckert" Gannon" is a final nail in the coffin, as far as I am concerned. This story went from irritating
to outrageous to appalling to downright nauseating and scary in rapid succession.
I went into great detail on the "Gannon" phenomenon in my blog
, but this is it in a nutshell: An avowed conservative partisan managed to boll-weevil his way into the White House
Briefing Room, where he was the go-to guy for administration spokesman Scott McClellan whenever the questions from the
press corps got too hot for comfort. His final exposure came in exactly this fashion, when he manufactured quotes by
Senators Clinton and Reid in order to score points off Democrats while hauling McClellan's chestnuts out of the fire
during a press briefing on Bush's hare-brained Social Security plan. He managed to do this without even using his real
name, which is actually James Guckert.
"So what?" his defenders cry. It isn't as if one has to be anointed by the saints to get a pass into the briefing room.
On this, "Gannon's" allies have a point. There are two kinds of passes for that room. To get a hard pass, one has to
attend the press gaggle four or five times a week over the course of at least a month. In other words, you have to work
at it. To get a day pass, however, one has only to call the Media Affairs Office, give them your social security number
and whatever credentials you can offer, and more often than not you can get in. You don't need to be a saint to get in,
or even a professional, apparently. What you do once you get there is what matters.
This is how "Gannon" got in, and so long as he followed the protocols with the media office, he had as much of a right
to be in there as any of the left-wing opinion writers who follow that same procedure many times a year. One may
question his ethics - his reports were little more than cut-and-paste jobs from GOP press releases - but it is hard to
argue that he didn't belong in the room with the rest of the day-passers.
"Gannon is being attacked for being gay," say some of his defenders. This comes from a prurient angle of the story that
has "Gannon" allegedly involved with gay prostitution websites, as reported by a number of blogs and mainstream news
sources. While the hypocrisy of "Gannon's" possible involvement with gay escort services even as he wrote some of the
most virulently homophobic screeds to be found anywhere - he at one point referred to John Kerry as being potentially
"the first gay President of the United States" - is enough to make one choke, it is not the main tent. In truth, this
angle of the story deserves to be a sidelight in a much larger problem.
"The lefties are attacking Gannon because they don't like his politics," goes the defender's refrain. Here is where the
train decisively leaves the tracks, because "Gannon" wasn't just some gomer who followed the procedure and is now being
attacked for asking partisan questions. In the catastrophically simplified
explain-it-to-me-like-I've-experienced-brain-death realm of television news, however, that's as deep as the analysis has
"Gannon" was on with Wolf Blitzer and CNN Thursday evening, and Blitzer didn't even try to pose a hard question. He
merely stepped aside and let "Gannon" pule. "Gannon" was allowed to paint himself as the victim in all this. Blitzer
even went so far as to say that he absolutely didn't understand one key facet of the story, and just let "Gannon" frame
it as he pleased. It was as luxurious a backrub as has ever been broadcast. The other 'reporter' involved in that CNN
report was Howard Kurtz, who had earlier in the day stated emphatically that there was nothing at all to this story. He
knew this because he had asked Scott McClellan about it, and McClellan said that was the deal. Move along. Nothing to
And therein lies the rub. If "Gannon" were getting zapped for simply being a conservative reporter who filed
boilerplate GOP talking points as news, one could possibly have some sympathy for him even if you find his views
repugnant and his hypocrisy intolerable. Yet the real issue at hand here has to do with the name Blitzer failed to bring
into the conversation: Valerie Plame.
Plame, you will recall, was the deep-cover CIA agent tasked to track the sale and delivery of weapons of mass
destruction to terrorists. Plame was outed by two Bush administration officials, who leaked word of Plame's secret
career to Bob Novak and several other journalists. They torpedoed her career deliberately as an act of revenge against
her husband, Joseph Wilson, who a week prior had exposed Bush's claims of uranium from Niger being used to make bombs in
Iraq as a whole lot of smoke and nonsense. The breaking of Plame was also a none-too-subtle warning to any other
administration insiders who might have been getting happy feet and were thinking of calling a reporter.
The Plame affair is, in the end, one of the grossest and most despicably deliberate breaches of national security to
come down the pike in a long time. The perpetrators have thus far managed to slip the noose because the journalists who
received their little tip are standing (correctly, in my opinion) behind the fundamental tenet of journalism: A reporter
must not be forced to reveal their sources. Former Illinois U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been tasked to
investigate the matter, and has issued subpoenas to the journalists in question. The names involved are some of the most
well-known in the news media.
"Jeff Gannon" has also been subpoenaed by Fitzgerald in the Plame matter. That's where the train leaves the tracks.
According to the Washington Post, "Gannon" did an interview with Joseph Wilson in October of 2003. In that interview,
"Gannon" directly referenced a secret internal CIA memo that named Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative. According to
the Post story, "Gannon" was the only reporter in the entire realm of journalism who had seen and read this confidential
CIA document. "Gannon" proudly bragged about his role in outing Plame on the forums of the ultra-conservative website
FreeRepublic.com, posting under the subtle pseudonym 'Jeff Gannon.'
"Gannon" wasn't just some gomer who got a day pass. He had serious access, as displayed by his knowledge of a CIA memo
that no one else had ever heard of or seen. He bragged publicly about playing a key role in an act of treason
perpetrated by members of this administration, something he would not have been able to do had he not had friends inside
the Bush White House. Scott McClellan claims to not know him. I, for one, think that is a bald-faced lie.
This is journalism today, and "Gannon" isn't alone in disgrace. Conservative columnist Armstrong Williams got paid more
than a quarter of a million dollars by the Bush administration to peddle No Child Left Behind. Conservative columnist
Maggie Gallagher got $21,500 to peddle Bush's ideas on marriage. Conservative columnist Mike McManus got $10,000 to
pitch the same policy as Gallagher.
This particular administration can't sell its policy initiatives on the merits, but has to pay journalists to pimp them
by proxy. As bad as that is, it is far worse to know that there are journalists out there who would willingly play that
role. Most of them don't even have to get paid to preach the party line. The aforementioned careerism, and the simple
fact that a lot of 'reporters' these days are little more than vapid, blow-dried spokesmodels trying to get famous, is
enough to get too many of them to roll over and sing for their supper.
Wolf Blitzer and Howard Kurtz got ten minutes of television time with a guy who was involved in blowing the cover of a
CIA operative tasked to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, and the best they could do was
to let him talk about how sad he is that all these bad people are after him. That pretty much says it all. The
combination of careerism, an absence of journalistic standards, and the notorious allergy the mainstream media has when
it comes to self-critique, has proven to be a poisonous cocktail.
Some of my co-workers and friends have said they think I should try to get one of those day-passes to the briefing
room, to see if it is as easy as it sounds. Once upon a time, the very idea of walking into the White House Press
Briefing Room and raising my hand with the rest of the crush would have kept me awake nights in giddy anticipation. To
walk in the footsteps of giants, at least in my profession, would have felt akin to striding to the high-rollers table
in the best casino in Vegas with a fat wad of bills and an eye for the opening.
After "Gannon", after Williams, after Gallagher, after McManus, after Wolf and Howie, after seeing what corporate
conglomerate ownership of journalism has done to a once-honorable calling, after watching this administration ruthlessly
exploit the glaring cracks in what we call reporting today, I don't feel that way anymore. Today, walking into the White
House Press Briefing Room would make me feel like a cheapjack slot jockey sneaking into a crummy casino on the dusty end
of the strip, hoping to hustle a few chips from a dealer who knows the table is already fixed.
I know there are still reputable journalists, men and women of integrity, working that room. Those are the people who
need to raise the hue and cry on this matter, before it is too late. What is happening in American journalism, and in
that most important of rooms, is a lessening of us all, and it is very, very dangerous.
William Rivers Pitt
is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two
books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know
' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence