Last week, Republican activist Bobby Eberle, the man behind the now infamous conservative Web site Talon News, insisted that before hiring "Jeff Gannon" as his White House correspondent, he never looked into Gannon's background. If true, Eberle probably wishes he had. And the same could be said for the White House officials who bent the rules to make way for Gannon in the press briefing room. There's new evidence that the Talon reporter, who lobbed softball questions at Bush during press conferences on behalf of a dubious news operation, recently worked as a male escort.
Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert, made headlines last week when he resigned from Talon after days of intensive scrutiny from bloggers. Online critics first raised questions about Guckert's questionable journalistic methods and his lack of experience (he often cut and pasted White House press releases into his "news" stories), as well as Talon's lack of independence from Eberle's purely partisan GOPUSA Web site. Then questions arose about why the Talon reporter was given access to the White House press room after being turned down for Capitol Hill press credentials. The final straw for Guckert came when bloggers revealed associations that Guckert and his Delaware-based company had with a handful of gay-themed male escort services.
Guckert insisted his only involvement with the sex sites was as a software consultant and, he added: "Those sites were never hosted. There's -- nothing ever went up on them," as he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Feb. 10. In an interview posted Feb. 11 with Editor & Publisher magazine, Guckert made the same claim: "They were done through a private company [Bedrock Corp.] I was involved with doing Web site development about five years ago. The sites were never hosted, and nothing was ever posted to the sites." On Monday, John Aravosis posted on his liberal site AmericaBlog.org detailed evidence indicating that not only was Guckert personally involved with the Web sites, but he was also offering his escort services for $200 an hour, or $1,200 a weekend.
Aravosis received on-the-record confirmation, complete with five invoices paid by Delaware's Bedrock Corp., from the person Guckert hired to build the gay Web site USMCPT.com, which features X-rated photos. The Web designer also forwarded to Aravosis dozens of unused photos that Guckert sent him when the site was being built. "Each photo looks remarkably like Jeff Gannon," Aravosis writes.
AmericaBlog also details scores of other gay escort sites featuring photos and personal profiles of Guckert, such as MaleCorps.com, WorkingBoys.net, and MeetLocalMen.com. Guckert's first site remained live until May 8, 2003, one month after he began covering the White House for Talon. According to Aravosis' research, Guckert's escort profile on WorkingBoys.net was still active as of Monday. Aravosis says he contacted Guckert for comment for the story but received none. On Sunday night, Guckert had a two-hour phone conversation wtih Michelangelo Signorile, who hosts a talk show on Sirius satellite radio. Although much of the conversation was private, according to Signorile, he asked Guckert specifically, and on the record, about his gay escort past. "I'm just not going to address it," Guckert said.
Addressing the question of why Guckert's personal life matters, Aravosis wrote, "This is the Conservative Republican Bush White House we're talking about. It's looking increasingly like they made a decision to allow a hooker to ask the President of the United States questions. They made a decision to give a man with an alias and no journalistic experience access to the West Wing of the White House on a 'daily basis.'"
Revelations about Guckert's past certainly do not square with Talon's openly conservative approach. Talon has defended Bush on the issue of a gay-marriage ban and supported the notion of "ex-gays." In an article last year, Guckert, as Gannon, wrote that Democratic Sen. John Kerry "might someday be known as 'the first gay president.' The Massachusetts liberal has enjoyed a 100 percent rating from the homosexual advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), since 1995 in recognition of his support for the pro-gay agenda."
Guckert's brand of openly partisan journalism was often suspect. Last February he reported that a former Kerry intern had taped an interview with "one of the major television networks" to discuss her affair with the senator, an assertion that was completely false. The intern never appeared on television and never claimed to have had an affair with Kerry. (Since quitting, all of Gannon's stories have been scrubbed from the Talon site.) Describing its editorial mission, Eberle told the Dallas Morning News that if he, as editor, came across a story that was critical of Republicans, "you bet we'd be covering it." To date, there's no evidence Talon has come across any such story.
News of Guckert's past, or at least how he was able to land a coveted White House press pass without submitting himself to a full-scale FBI background check, will likely be addressed at Tuesday's meeting between leaders of the White House Correspondents Association and White House press secretary Scott McClellan. According to E&P, the two sides are getting together in the wake of the Guckert scandal to discuss ways of adjusting the criteria for White House press passes.
Most White House reporters obtain a permanent, or "hard," press pass only after passing an FBI background check, and only after first securing Capitol Hill credentials. Guckert was denied Hill credentials when the committee in charge of issuing them could not confirm Talon was a legitimate, independent news organization. Instead, Guckert, with the help of someone inside the White House press office, used a daily pass for nearly two years. Daily passes require only instant background checks, compared to the ones the FBI conducts for hard-pass applicants, which can take several months to complete.
According to Eberle, Guckert provided White House officials with his real name, which means they knew he was writing under a false one. White House officials refuse to discuss why they let Guckert in or what, if any, criteria they used to determine his qualifications. "We're trying to get more details about how this was done," says Mark Smith, vice president of the White House Correspondents Association.
Last week, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., requested from McClellan all documents related to Guckert's press passes. "As you may know, Mr. Guckert/Gannon was denied a Congressional press pass because he could not show that he wrote for a valid news organization. Given the fact that he was denied Congressional credentials, I seek your explanation of how Mr. Guckert/Gannon passed muster for White House press credentials," Lautenberg wrote. On Monday, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer noted, "This issue is important from an ethical as well as from a national security standpoint. It is hard to understand why a man with little real journalism experience was given a White House press corps credential."
The gay escort angle may also force Guckert's conservative defenders to rethink their position. Writing last week for Men's News Daily, a conservative site often aligned with Talon, columnist Sher Zieve insisted, "My, most reliable, source advises that ... before coming to Washington D.C., Jeff was in software. The site domain names were registered, by Jeff, for a client or clients. The same source advises that these sites were never brought on-line, for said clients."
Writing for the right-wing media advocacy group, Accuracy in Media, Cliff Kincaid dismissed the controversy as "laughable," insisting Guckert's only "crimes" were "that he was too pro-Republican, attended White House briefings, and asked questions unfair to Democrats." And at Power Line, the conservative outpost that wrote relentlessly about CBS's troubles with its Bush National Guard story last year, the site has confessed bewilderment about the Guckert controversy. "I can't figure out what the story is," wrote one of Power Line's contributors.
Whether news that Guckert was able to go from posting his gay male escort services online to being ushered into the White House under a phony name on behalf of a fake news organization -- and was never asked to pass an FBI background check -- constitutes a real "story" among the Republican Party faithful, or the mainstream press corps, remains to be seen.