Accuracy in Media

After weeks of feverish coverage of the exaggerated “Gannongate scandal,” involving a conservative forced out of the White House press corps, industry trade journal Editor & Publisher acted downright teary-eyed with joy over a daily pass granted to a left-wing blogger. With the headline “Landmark Day: First Blogger Gets White House Access,” Editor & Publisher reported that “For the first time in memory, and perhaps ever, a ‘blogger’ will be admitted to a regular White House briefing on Monday.”

The blogger was identified as Garrett M. Graff, who writes about news media for fishbowlDC, part of the site. Graff told E&P that the controversy over Jeff Gannon inspired him to try for the day pass, but he was stymied until mainstream outlets like USA Today, and Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, made a few calls. While E&P tirelessly deconstructed Gannon’s political leanings and associations in stories about him, it didn’t even mention in this article that Graff served as deputy national press secretary on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and, beginning in 1997, was then-Governor Dean’s first webmaster. Ironically, Gannon himself brought that up when interviewed by E&P.

On March 7, E&P even published a report on how Graff’s first day went: “Garrett M. Graff of FishbowlDC presented it as perfectly routine, and revealed that he offered cookies to the press staff who helped get him past the front gate.” Editor & Publisher noted Graff failed to actually ask a question: “He did not file a report on the afternoon briefing for more than 90 minutes-very unbloglike-because of other pressing issues (he was being interviewed about the historic day). Of course, anyone really interested could have watched it live on C-SPAN or at least followed a very funny blow-by-blow at the Wonkette blog. After all this, Graff did not ask Scott McClellan a question, although he said he had one ready: about the Internet, naturally.”

The article had the tone of a proud Papa watching his son experiencing his first day of school. Heck, I was expecting to hear what Garrett wore, and whether he remembered to tie his shoelaces that day. Did anyone at E&P remember to pack his lunch and tuck his shirt in?

What a contrast to the savage coverage and harpooning of Gannon. E&P shows it can outdo the worst of the liberal media. 

E&P added, “After the White House let reporter/escort James Guckert in for two years, under the alias ‘Jeff Gannon,’ it seemed just about time for a blog arrival.” “About the time?”  Gwen Flanders, a USA Today editor who oversees the paper’s White House reporters had previously told E&P, “Virtually no one is not allowed in.”She said that getting a day pass is a simple matter of passing a background check and working for a news organization. But she added that there is not as much scrutiny of the legitimacy of the news organizations: “Who is in the position to say who is not legitimate?” Apparently, E&P is.

The press corps has included a motley crew of activists like Russell Mokhiber, who asked whether Bush had violated the Sixth Commandment by going to war, or self-described “citizen journalist” Sarah McClendon, who lobbed this softball at Clinton: “Sir, will you tell us why you think people have been so mean to you?”

The truth is the White House press room “culture” has always had a sprinkling of eccentrics, independents and politically-motivated questioners who write for obscure outlets. The exaggerated attention given to Gannon served nothing but to obscure this fact from a public not familiar with what really goes on there. Johanna Neuman, writing for the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, was one of the very few to paint this accurate portrait that E&P could have painted from day one of the Gannon frenzy if it had been so inclined. Neuman pointed out the press corps isn’t so elite as people think, and that identifying journalists has always been an “inexact science” even before the Gannon affair. “[T]he White House press corps is not the thoroughly screened and scrubbed journalistic elite Americans might presume,” Neuman wrote, “Along with stars of the country’s major media organizations, it has long included eccentrics, fringe players and characters of uncertain lineage.”

Neuman cited one Naomi Nover of the “Nover News Service.”  “No one ever saw her work published,” Neuman wrote, “but Nover ? whose coif of white hair somewhat resembled George Washington’s wig ? got past a security cordon during a Reagan trip to China after a reporter showed guards a U.S. dollar bill as evidence of how important she was.”

To read and hear the sheer bulk of coverage on Gannon and his “softball questions,” relation to a “sham” news organization, and lack of journalism training, you would be mightily persuaded to believe this indeed had been a scandal of historic first. Media worked hard to make you believe that.  In fact, revisit CSPAN coverage of the White House press briefings and you will be certain to spy ‘real’ journalists grinning or chuckling good-naturedly at Gannon’s questions or those of other ‘citizen journalists’ and activists who inhabit the press room. It would appear before this scandal was manufactured, the press room journalists found the presence of the ‘oddballs’ somewhat entertaining and still do.

On February 28, E&P reported the White House Correspondents Association had dismissed the Gannon affair. The WHCA said in part in a statement, “Consistent with the First Amendment, the White House Correspondents’ Association stands for inclusiveness in the credentialing process so that the White House remains accessible to all journalists. We hope that individual episodes do not obscure the broader principles of a fair and evenhanded credentialing process that serves the goal of free and full exchange of information.”

When E&P asked one member whether the situation might be revisited, they lumped bloggers in with writers like Gannon:  “When asked if his view would change in the event that there was a sharp increase in the distribution of day passes for bloggers, writers affiliated with obscure Web sites, and those with obvious partisan leanings, like Guckert, Hutcheson said such a scenario could require a new look.” E&P also quoted the member as stating Gannon had been “posing as a journalist.”

It’s clear that a blogger may be as prone to asking “unprofessional” journalism questions such as softball questions, or “preachy” questions, and FishbowlDC isn’t exactly an accredited news organization or lacking in political slant. It does sometimes engage in what it calls “Real Reporting,” as when it interviewed Jeff Gannon. The difference in coverage of Graff and Gannon, though, has been like night and day. The reason: one is liberal, the other conservative.

We note these cases are certainly not completely identical. Graff writes for himself and hasn’t had his sex life publicized, presumably believing it should and will be kept secret. Hutcheson of the White House Correspondents Association told E&P this about Gannon’s sex life: “Too much is being made out of it. You should take out the porn connection. That has nothing to do with anything. Playboy has naked women, but they have done some damn good journalism. It is the journalistic endeavor that should be looked at.”

Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary, told E&P that Guckert’s ties to several sex Web sites and allegations that he worked as a male prostitute should not necessarily keep him or any other reporter out of the White House. Fleischer said. “The last thing our nation needs is for anyone in the White House to concern themselves with the private lives of reporters,” he said. “What right does the White House have to decide who gets to be a reporter based on private lives?”

E&P has pushed the idea that Gannon’s sex life matters because it allegedly encompassed illegal behavior. Well, sorry to spoil the pompous party and pop the gigantic hot air balloon, but let’s have a list of all the reporters who have ever done illegal drugs. Ever smoked a joint? Ever done a line of coke? It can be hard to remember, but that’s illegal conduct, too.

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