Blogs and the post-press era

The controversy over “Jeff Gannon’s” access to the White House press room (catch up here and here) has raised yet more interesting questions about alternative versus mainstream media and the role of blogs.

Gannon it turns out is really James Dale Guckert and gained his press pass under a false name. He was known for lobbing “softball” questions and he wrote for a small GOP supporter funded web mag Talon News (which this week announced it was closing for renovations!). Bloggers started investigating him when he asked President Bush how he could work with Democrats who had “divorced themselves from reality”. Turns out the false name wasn’t the only controversy lurking behind the facade. Bloggers quickly revealed that he had registered a number of websites that appear to offer his services as a “military style” gay prostitute. At first glance it all seems pretty juicy and pretty clear cut.

But the Nation’s David Corn raises some very interesting questions in a recent analysis of the story. His first point is bloggers need to be careful about critiquing standards for awarding White House press passes. It might come back to bite them:

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?

The other slightly more complex issue is the newsworthiness of his sexuality and his sex sites. There is a pretty straight up assumption in some reports that someone who has worked as a hooker is simply an unworthy recipient of a White House press pass. Many of the liberal bloggers of course framed it differently. Outing him as gay and a male prostitute was relevant under the “hypocrisy” rule because of his negative reporting on gay marriage. But Corn and his assistant have shown pretty convincingly that although Gannon’s reports – written for a conservative audience – primarily quote the views of Republican same sex marriage opponents, they fall a long way short of gay baiting.

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.

The other interesting perspective on this whole affair comes from Jay Rosen who contextualises the story under his rubric of the “post-press” era. If the Bush administration was deliberately using Gannon to seed easy questions, or even if they just credentialed him with too little care, it reflects their broader view on the role of the press in the political process.

Rosen shows that Bush and his associates have made their views crystal clear in recent statements. He quotes Bush’s chief of staff on the role of the press:

“They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election,” said Card. “I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”

Rosen calls “Gannon” a “replacement press, a fake journalist with a fake name working for a fake news organization, asking fake questions at a real press event.”

Creating “Jeff Gannon” as a credible White House correspondent, and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to de-certify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort, which stretches beyond the Bush team itself to allies in Republican Party politics, and new actors like Sinclair Broadcasting, or FreeRepublic.com…

It is this larger picture that accounts for a professional tribe of journalists who, as Lemann said, “collectively felt both more harshly attacked and less important” in 2004. The more harshly attacked part comes from the Culture War rumbling below, while the message “you’re unimportant” is sent directly from the top.

There are some interesting contradictions in this. Rosen is right to point out that the Bush team are seeking to undermine the press through a series of overt and covert methods. However the destablising of the mainstream press is a process that started long before Bush took office and many would argue that the press itself must share a large part of the blame.

I re-watched Absence of Malice last night. Made in 1981 it clearly articulates the perceived problems with press power. “You don’t print the truth,” the Paul Newman character says, ” you print what other people say. You print what you overhear. The truth isn’t that easy to come by.”

If All the President’s Men was the standard bearer for journalists as triumphant fourth estate warriors, Absence of Malice, made only five years later, shows how tenuously that view sits in the public imagination.

The other side of all this is the very movement, that Rosen himself has been behind, which calls for a democratic grassroots media that reinvents fourth estate theory. Blogs are one part of this movement but the movement will never flower if blogs themselves simply become addicted to blogger identified political scandal. I don’t know how many more “gates” I can stand.

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