On Feb. 17, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams introduced a report on controversial White House correspondent James Guckert by informing viewers that the saga was "the talk of Washington." Nine days later the mysterious tale of an amateur, partisan journalist who slipped into the White House under false pretenses remains the buzz of the Beltway. Yet most mainstream reporters have opted not to cover the story. Two of the television networks, as well as scores of major metropolitan newspapers around the country, have completely ignored it.
"It's stunning to me that there are questions about the independent press being undermined and the mainstream press doesn't seem that interested in it," says Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary during President Clinton's second term. "People in the mainstream press have shrugged their shoulders and said, 'It's a whole lot of nothing.'"
"It's difficult to explain," adds John Aravosis, who publishes Americablog.com, which has been instrumental in breaking news on "Gannongate." "What more do we need for this story to be reported on seriously? It's everything Washington loves in a story. But the response is literally, 'Ew, we can't touch this.'" (The story itself refuses to die. On Thursday, while Guckert's former employer Talon News was going dark, Guckert relaunched his Web site, complete with a request for donations to "fight back against the well funded attack machine on the Left.")
Ordinarily, revelations that a former male prostitute, using an alias (Jeff Gannon) and working for a phony news organization, was ushered into the White House -- without undergoing a full-blown security background check -- in order to pose softball questions to administration officials would qualify as news by any recent Beltway standard. Yet as of Thursday, ABC News, which produces "Good Morning America," "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," "Nightline," "This Week," "20/20" and "Primetime Live," has not reported one word about the three-week-running scandal. Neither has CBS News ("The Early Show," "The CBS Evening News," "60 Minutes," "60 Minutes Wednesday" and "Face the Nation"). NBC and its entire family of morning, evening and weekend news programs have addressed the story only three times. Asked about the lack of coverage, spokeswomen for both ABC and CBS said executives were unavailable to discuss their networks' coverage.
Perhaps nobody is surprised that Republican-friendly Fox News has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid covering the Guckert story and the embarrassing questions it raises for the Bush White House. Since the story began to take shape earlier this month, Fox News has filled more than 500 hours of programming. During that span the name "Jeff Gannon" has been uttered just five times on the air, according to a search of the LexisNexis electronic database of television news transcripts. And at no point have the facts surrounding the story been explained to Fox's viewers. (Dependable Republican ally Matt Drudge, who in the past has gleefully trumpeted media scandals, has also been allergic to Gannongate, posting just one link to date on his Web site.)
But it is surprising that a program like MSBNC's "Hardball," which touts itself as the home of authentic Beltway chatter and which has aired 15 episodes since the Guckert story first emerged, has dedicated just one segment from one show to the Guckert controversy. MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," however, has been much more aggressive in covering the story. Only CNN has covered the story with any kind of consistency among the 24-hour news channels.
Meanwhile on the newsstands, through Thursday, there had been no meaningful coverage in USA Today or in the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Francisco Chronicle, Indianapolis Star, Denver Post, Oakland Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer, to name a few that have effectively boycotted the White House press office scandal. Leo Wolinsky, deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says the Times is running its first Guckert story on Friday, focusing on the guidelines for securing White House press passes. "It's a bit late," he concedes. "We may have been a bit slow to recognize it had become a story of public interest." Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, did not return calls seeking comment on that paper's decision to not report on the story.
At some papers there has been a confusing disconnect for readers between the opinion pages and the news pages when it comes to Gannongate. The Miami Herald, for instance, ran a column by Leonard Pitts decrying the scandal and the lack of outcry it has sparked. The column generated some letters from readers who agreed, criticizing the mainstream media's relative silence on the story. Yet readers who stuck only to the news pages never saw any reference to the Guckert story; it simply did not exist. The same is true of the Detroit Free Press and the San Francisco Chronicle: Both papers published stinging editorials denouncing the White House for letting a fake reporter into briefings, yet neither paper's news sections bothered to cover the controversy.
As for the editorial pages, it's curious that the nation's five largest papers, all pillars of the media establishment (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today), have been silent on the Guckert saga -- especially when dailies in more out-of-the-way places such as Tulsa, Okla.; Bangor, Maine; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Augusta County, Va.; and Pensacola, Fla., have all deemed the story troubling enough to require attention, as noted by Media Matters for America, a liberal advocacy group that first raised questions about Guckert and Talon News.
Addressing the media's timidity, Aravosis suggests there's still a reticence on the part of the press, post-Sept. 11, to be tough on President Bush and the Republican White House. "It's getting ridiculous," he says. "It's been three and a half years, and we're still treating him with kid gloves." Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page recently wrote, "If America's mainstream media really were as liberal as conservatives claim we are, we would be ballyhooing the fiasco of James D. Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, with Page 1 banner headlines and hourly bulletins." Instead, the mainstream media is averting its eyes.
It's possible that when the Guckert story took an unexpected turn into the world of gay male escorts some news organizations became skittish about pursuing it, despite the fact that the specifics were laid out, complete with on-the-record confirmation, on Web sites like Americablog.com. Howard Kurtz, who has covered the story for the Washington Post, told the Boston Phoenix this week, "I was surprised at how many major news organizations lagged in telling their readers and viewers what everybody on the Internet already knows: that this guy has a history of posting naked pictures of himself on gay-escort sites." The truth is that many major news organizations have yet to even mention Guckert's name to their viewers and readers, let alone detail his past as a male escort.
What's also curious is that last December another media controversy erupted over the role a journalist played in posing a controversial question to top White House officials. It involved a reporter for the Chattanooga Free Times Press, Edward Lee Pitts, who helped a National Guardsman craft a tough question posed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regarding the lack of body armor for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. Rumsfeld's at-times-cavalier response created a small firestorm. ("You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.") The revelation that Pitts was involved in formulating the question, and the debate over whether he overstepped a journalistic boundary, soon became a story onto itself in the mainstream press. Unlike Guckert, who was criticized for bending the rules to toss softball questions to administration officials, Pitts was accused of bending the rules to ask a question that was too hard.
Although the Pitts story lasted for only one 24-hour news cycle, it was covered by virtually every major news outlet, including ABC, CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle -- the very same news organizations that, three weeks into the Guckert saga, have failed to acknowledge the story even exists.