BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the first four years of the Bush administration, this program railed about its message discipline, its secrecy and its avoidance of media scrutiny. The second Bush term has expanded the palette of outrages, from Condoleezza Rice demanding to pre-screen questions from students in a Q&A session at a French university, to government payments for Armstrong Williams and at least two other pundits flogging the administration's policies. But for sheer tongue-wagging value, it's hard to match the "J.G. Affair."
JEFF GANNON: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the US economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid, and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work - you said you are going to reach out to these people - how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
BOB GARFIELD: That's Jeff Gannon, of the conservative politics website Talon News. Actually, formerly of Talon News. He and Talon parted ways this week when sleuthing bloggers figured out that the lobber of presidential softballs isn't Jeff Gannon at all, but a fellow named James Gucker who, in addition to having certain skeletons in his closet, has been working with a White House daily press pass under an assumed name. Lots of people use professional names, but nonetheless, last week found many people scrambling to explain themselves. One of them was White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who acknowledged Thursday that he knew about Gannon's nom de plume but said the credentialing process is none of his beeswax. That response wasn't good enough for Democratic New Jersey Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, who pounced on this latest embarrassment to demand all materials from the White House relating to the credentialing of the fictitious J.G. Whether the senator was actually outraged or simply delighted about the dustup, his press release didn't say. For the record, the White House categorically denies that Gannon was a paid shill of the Armstrong Williams variety, and that may well be true. Another question is whether a self-declared ideologue with no previous professional journalism experience should have been credentialed under any name. His answer is, well, why not?
JEFF GANNON: I write for Talon News, and I take no editorial direction from anyone; nobody feeds me questions. I have full rein to choose my subject matter. Now, I've been covering the White House for two years, and usually my stories focus on what the White House says or, or some issue that the White House has commented on, but the notion that - that this is some kind of political activist organization is, is incorrect.
BOB GARFIELD: Bob Deans is White House correspondent for Cox newspapers and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. He sat next to Gannon in the press room, and he says the man has a point.
BOB DEANS: It's very tricky, because we have not wanted to put ourselves in the position of saying, gee, this guy is a legitimate journalist and this guy isn't. You know, it's a trade; not a profession. I don't have a, a certificate hanging on my wall, here, saying I'm an authorized journalist, thank goodness.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, Deans says:
BOB DEANS: I think the American people have a hard enough time trying to decide who they should trust for their news without the daily White House briefing room turning into Crossfire.
BOB GARFIELD: And in the role of Bob Novak, TalonNews.com, a sister website of GOPUSA, founded by Texas Republican Bobby Eberle. Its declared mission is to, quote, "spread the conservative message throughout America through news, commentary and activism." On Friday, Gannon acknowledged that his sympathies lie with the Bush administration, but he took pains to note the distinction between Talon.com and its GOPUSA affiliate and expressed anger that he was being publicly flayed as, in his words, "a political hack."
JEFF GANNON: Why does every question to the president of the United States have to be hostile? He took my question, and he spoke to it, and part of the press conference is for him to be able to speak to the press and to the American people on whatever he wants to say, and my question provided that opportunity. I got, I think I got one of the best answers of the day out of him.
BOB GARFIELD: As to how he actually qualified for a job in the White House press corps, Gannon cited his diverse work and life experience.
JEFF GANNON: Well, I've been an entrepreneur; I've helped businesses do startup. I was doing some website development. I drove a truck once. I have a teaching certificate, and I taught high school for a year. I've done a lot of things in my life.
BOB GARFIELD: The latest being White House correspondent for Talon News, where, for example, during the campaign, he attacked John Kerry as "a coddler of gays." Nothing remarkable about that per se, except that Gannon, in his brief experience as a website developer was the registrant of record for some homoerotic-sounding website names, notably HotMilitaryStud.com. That revelation may have been his undoing at Talon, which has since deleted from its site all stories written by Gannon as well as many stories on gay issues. The juicy tidbits certainly made the J.G. affair the talk of Washington this week, but the real issue isn't sexual hypocrisy. The issue is whether the White House is avoiding real journalists and playing the wink-wink, nudge-nudge game with ringers. Gannon asks:
JEFF GANNON: What's wrong with that? Just because I'm not hostile to the president of the United States in a press conference that somehow I'm not doing my job?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, here's the answer: Yes, James or Jeff or whatever your name is - you're doing your job, but not journalism's job. Sure, the press corps is occasionally rough on the Bush administration, albeit not nearly enough to suit our tastes. But they are equally rough on Democratic administrations, as Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton can more than attest. The press's job calls for harsh questioning - a job in no way balanced by blowing kisses to those in power. On the contrary, every question is precious. Squandering the ever-shrinking opportunity to confront the commander in chief for accountability is not only anti-journalistic; it's an affront to democracy. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: 58:00 That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Anne Kossef and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Susanna Dilliplane and Nick Gilewicz, and editing help from Jeff Rogers. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Katya Rogers is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org -- and email us at email@example.com. This is On the Media, produced by WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.