White House shuns news hounds in favor of lap dogs

February 22, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - If America's mainstream media really were as liberal as conservatives claim we are, we would be ballyhooing the fiasco of James D. Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, with Page 1 banner headlines and hourly bulletins.

Imagine how the conservative choir would sing out if a Democratic White House knocked long-tenured journalists off its press room access lists so that it could give access to a fellow like Mr. Guckert, who dependably asks softball questions because he reports for a partisan Web site that supports the Bush administration.

Imagine how they would question the access given by the Secret Service and the White House press office for two years to a guy who used a driver's license that said James Guckert to get into the White House, then switched to his alter ego of Jeff Gannon.

Mr. Guckert wrote under the name Jeff Gannon for TalonNews.com, a conservative online news outlet associated with GOPUSA.com, a conservative Web site based in Houston and dedicated to "spreading the conservative message throughout America."

He attracted the attention of liberal "bloggers," short for Web loggers, when he asked President Bush a squeezably soft question at a news conference in January: How, he asked the president, could he work "with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

But all that's a titillating sideshow compared with the charges that House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland has called to the attention of the special prosecutor investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak. In 2003, Mr. Guckert wrote on Talon News that he had asked Ms. Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, about "an internal government memo prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel" that revealed his wife's CIA role.

Revealing a CIA agent's identity is a federal crime. Reporters for Time and The New York Times face possible jail sentences for refusing to say who revealed Ms. Plame's CIA role to them in an apparent effort to discredit Mr. Wilson's criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy. Is the prosecutor putting Mr. Guckert's feet to the fire too? If not, why not?

Of course, every administration tries to manipulate the media. Team Bush has elevated it to a high art.

Before Mr. Guckert, there was the disclosure that three conservative syndicated columnists had been paid handsomely to promote administration programs - payment they had failed to disclose to their readers.

And remember those prepackaged, government-sponsored video news releases featuring fake reporters so local news outlets would be tempted to run them as legitimate news stories, as some did?

We have grown accustomed to those rent-a-crowd "Ask President Bush" town-hall-style meetings during the campaign and during Mr. Bush's effort to promote his proposed Social Security changes.

But I thought the last straw was the unprecedented herding of reporters covering the inaugural balls into pens from which they could only venture to interview guests if they were escorted by "minders," in the fashion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Tell me again: What was that war about? Oh, yeah: freedom and democracy. Great. I'd like to see a little more of that back here at home.

Unfortunately, this administration and its supportive chorus are getting away with less accountability and more secretiveness, partly by demonizing the media. If they succeed in intimidating us from watchdogs into lap dogs, they will have succeeded where previous administrations from both parties failed.

That's why, despite the Guckert fiasco, I do not begrudge Web journalists their access to government press rooms. I want to see more access granted to a press corps that is as diverse as the people we serve.

More media access means more government accountability.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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