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Old February 23rd 05, 06:42 PM
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Default ( OT ) Gannongate: It's worse than you think

Bush's press office gave Jim Guckert access, even knowing his only
credentials were from the blatantly partisan group GOPUSA.

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By Eric Boehlert

Feb. 23, 2005 | When the press first raised questions about why Jim
Guckert had been awarded access to the White House press room for two
years running while he worked for Talon News, critics charged that
Talon, with its amateurish standards and close working ties to
Republican activists, did not qualify as a legitimate news organization.
It turns out the truth is even stranger: Guckert was waved into the
White House while working for an even more blatantly partisan
organization, *GOPUSA*.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan originally told reporters
that Guckert was properly allowed into press briefings because he worked
for an outlet that "published regularly." But that's when the questions
were about Talon. More recently McClellan offered up a new rationale.
Asked by Editor and Publisher magazine how the decision was made to
allow a GOPUSA correspondent in, McClellan said, "The staff assistant
went to verify that the news organization existed." (Emphasis added.)

That, apparently, was the lone criterion the press office used when
Guckert (aka Jeff Gannon) approached it in February 2003 seeking a pass
for White House briefings. Not yet working for Republican-friendly Talon
News, which came into existence in April 2003, Guckert, using an alias
and with no journalism experience whatsoever, was writing on a voluntary
basis for a Web site dedicated to promoting Republican issues. To
determine whether Guckert would gain entrance to the press room,
normally reserved for professional journalists working for legitimate,
recognized and independent news organizations, the press office simply
logged on to the Internet and confirmed that *GOPUSA* "existed," and
then quickly approved Guckert's access. In a White House obsessed, at
least publicly, with security and where journalists cannot even move
between the White House and the nearby Old Executive Building without a
personal escort, Guckert's lenient treatment was likely unprecedented.

Yet, if there's one other person who did manage to receive the same type
of kid-glove treatment from the White House press office, it was
Guckert's boss at *GOPUSA* and later at Talon News, Bobby Eberle. A
Texas-based Republican activist and a delegate to the Republican
National Convention in 2000, Eberle founded Talon News after he became
concerned that the name GOPUSA might appear to have a "built-in bias."
With no journalism background, he too was able to secure a White House
press pass, in early 2003, on the strength of representing GOPUSA,
dedicated to "spreading the conservative message throughout America."

This is not how the White House press office has traditionally worked.
"When I was there we didn't let political operatives in. It was
completely contrary to what the press room should be used for," says Joe
Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary to President Clinton
during his second term. Asked what would have happened if a reporter
from a clearly partisan operation, say "Democrats Today," had requested
a White House press pass, Lockhart said that if the chief of the
Democratic National Committee were attending an event at the White
House, then perhaps the Democrats Today reporter might be allowed in for
that one day. "But to be admitted as a reporter and sit in a chair and
act like a reporter" for months on end the way Guckert did? "No," said
Lockhart, "that's not within the realm of what [is] proper."

Guckert and Eberle remain at the center of the scandal. When liberal
bloggers revealed that Guckert, who posed reliably friendly questions to
administration officials, had recently offered his services online as a
gay male escort, the questions for the White House only became more

Guckert first came to national attention when he asked President Bush a
question at his Jan. 26 press conference. Guckert's query, in which he
ridiculed Democratic leaders for having "divorced themselves from
reality," was what initially raised the ire of liberals. It was not how
an openly Republican partisan got inside the White House press room,
because partisans have been there for years. Lockhart recalls having
been confronted with a similar question of White House access regarding
veteran Baltimore, Md., radio host Lester Kinsolving, who for decades
has pitched eccentric, long-winded and usually conservative-leaning
questions inside the briefing room. (Kinsolving is currently
recuperating from triple-bypass surgery.) Lockhart thought it was
inequitable that Kinsolving was virtually the only local radio show host
with daily access. "The issue got kicked up to my level. I thought it
was fundamentally unfair, and it was clear that he was an annoyance to
everyone in the room. And frankly we should have shut him down. But I
knew if we kicked him out it would be a big story with the right-wing
press, and I didn't need that."

Unlike Guckert, though, Kinsolving has an authentic background in
journalism, having worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and the
Indianapolis Star. Talon's defenders suggest that it too is a legitimate
news outlet. But providing some insight into how it operates, Eberle
told the New York Times last week that he rarely monitored Guckert's
White House work. "Jeff did his thing. I did my thing," Eberle said. In
other words, it appears that Guckert, who often cut and pasted White
House press releases and posted them on Talon as "news," did not even
have an editor. As Media Matters for America noted, Talon "apparently
consists of little more than Eberle, Gannon, and a few volunteers."

Just how blatantly the White House press office looked the other way in
regard to Guckert and his dubious status as a legitimate reporter comes
into stark relief when examining his attempt to secure a similar press
pass to cover Capitol Hill. Guckert submitted his application in
December 2003 to the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a press group
in charge of handing out credentials. In April 2004, the committee
denied Guckert's request. Writing to Guckert, committee chairman Jim
Drinkard outlined three clear deficiencies in Guckert's application:

1) "Committee guidelines require that on-line publications 'must charge
a market rate fee for subscription or access, or carry paid advertising
at current market rates.' You have not demonstrated to the committee's
satisfaction that Talon News has any paid subscribers, that paid client
newspapers publish Talon News stories, or that it is supported by

2) "The application for accreditation to the press galleries states that
'members of the press shall not engage in lobbying or paid advertising,
publicity, promotion, work for any individual, political party,
corporation, organization, or agency of the Federal Government.' Talon
News has not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the committee that
there is a separation from GOPUSA."

3) "Gallery rules and the application state that the principal income of
correspondents must be obtained from news correspondence intended for
publication in newspapers or news services. The committee feels that
paying a single reporter a 'stipend' does not meet the intent of the rule."

The White House, in contrast, said that as long as Talon News or GOPUSA
"existed," Guckert was free to attend its press briefings. Yet, in the
past, a reporter seeking a permanent White House press pass has had to
first secure credentials to cover Capitol Hill. Without those, the White
House would not submit the application for a background check. But even
though Guckert failed to secure Capitol Hill credentials, the White
House waved him into press briefings for nearly two years using what's
called a day pass. Those passes are designed for temporary use by
out-of-town reporters who need access to the White House, not for
indefinite use by reporters who flunk the Capitol Hill test.

To obtain a day pass during the Clinton administration, a reporter "had
to make the case as to why that day was unique and why [he] had to cover
the White House from inside the gates instead of outside," Lockhart says.

So the mystery remains: How did Guckert, with absolutely no journalism
background and working for a phony news organization, manage to adopt
the day-pass system as his own while sidestepping a thorough background
check that might have detected his sordid past? That's the central
question the White House *refuses* to address. And like its initial
explanation that Guckert received his press pass the same way other
journalists do, the notion first put out by White House officials that
they knew little or nothing about GOPUSA/Talon News, its correspondent
Guckert or its founder Eberle has also melted away. Instead, we now
know, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer personally spoke
with Eberle about GOPUSA, so concerned was Fleischer that it was not an
independent organization. (Eberle convinced Fleischer that it was.)
Additionally, Guckert attended the invitation-only White House press
Christmas parties in 2003 and 2004, and last holiday season, in a
personal posting on GOPUSA, Eberle thanked Karl Rove for his
"assistance, guidance, and friendship."