Gannongate: Journalism’s Latest Disgrace

Does anyone remember Oprah Winfrey’s casual admission of cocaine use, in 1995?

Ten years ago, the popular syndicated talk show host revealed that she had “done this drug” while interviewing crack addicts and Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines, who had just chronicled her own drug abuse. The “spontaneous” confession (which never actually confessed the name of drug, mind you) amounted to little more than a shameless attempt to win sympathy from viewers while simultaneously courting the disenfranchised black audience.

The primary goal of this “shocking revelation,” is damage control. “I realize [with] the public person I have become,” she said that day, “if the story ever were revealed, the tabloids would exploit it and what a big issue it would be.”

Maybe Oprah and I differ on what a “big issue” is; after all, the pharmacological antics of a smug media darling don’t exactly rate high on my list of critical stories. But the idea of “spinning” a headline is ageless — Oprah beating ghoulish entertainment reporters to the punch and making them look like the jackals they are merely continues a timeless tradition of deception and trickery.

I note Oprah’s example of media manipulation because it immediately came to mind when Doug Wead, a former Bush camp confidant, leaked tapes of a younger George W. Bush alluding to marijuana use. The President’s “admission” smartly becomes less about him getting high and more about a friend’s betrayal, bypassing the larger issue entirely.

Strangely, the media also thinks it’s exonerated itself from disgraceful reporting of White House malfeasance by focusing on this news. How? How do journalists sit and watch as three of their own capitulate to paid shilling for the Bush Administration? How do they continue to justify their paycheck while continuing to overlook one of the most irresponsible journalistic misfires in the last century — “Jeff Gannon?”

Answer? They don’t.

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“Jeff Gannon” is the alias of Republican activist James Guckert. Despite little or no experience in journalism, “Gannon” enjoyed accessibility to the President that few Americans have through his admission into the White House Press Corps. He was inserted into rare press briefings by GOPUSA and Talon News (conservative mouthpieces for the Administration often cited by right-wing commentators) to lob Bush softball questions.

Guckert also developed pornography web sites and was exposed as a former male prostitute! Hardly the kind of family values that pro-God, anti-queer Bush likes to see in his sycophants, right?

However, I care about neither the sexual proclivities of a fraud and huckster nor his political bent. What bothers me is that the White House has been hit with another scandal, only to see the damage immediately deflected. There are no repercussions.

Stop and think about this for a minute. The Bush Administration has already confessed to counterfeiting news by planting columnists and reporters with party rhetoric and a fat paycheck. The response from the media? Certainly nothing taking their colleagues to task, only half-assed questions: like, “Do you think it’s a proper use of government funds to pay commentators to promote your policies?”

That reporter was well rewarded with an equally half-assed reply: “I expect my cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”

With Guckert’s outing by weblogs around the world, one would think that the White House would finally eat some crow over its relentless assault on the Fourth Estate. After all, the scandal has all the prime elements of a television movie — gay sex, deceit, treachery and politics; it couldn’t have come bundled in a better package. Yet once again, this disturbing story of media manipulation has been tucked away with all the mouth-frothing over Iraqi weapons and terror alerts. No indictment for perjury. No ramifications of any kind.

Instead, we’re treated to softball “investigations” into Bush’s drug use. Who cares whether or not Bush did lines or smoked weed or drank himself silly? It doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t affect you, it’s none of our business. All I care about with regards to the President is how he serves his role as leader of the people of the United States. In that, he’s a failure and a criminal.

Doctoring press conferences so that “trusted” stooges can spoon-feed questions to this stuttering boob does everyone a disservice. First, it gives the impression that people actually think key Democrats are “divorced from reality” (ironic considering Bush feels he’s been called by God to democratize the Middle East). Second, it removes the possibility of asking a question with real substance. Since press conferences are so few and far between with this administration, and since Bush is such a “handled” individual, catching him unscripted is the public’s only chance to see what a dunderhead he really is.

One would think that American journalists would be up in arms over the routine trashing their profession gets from unbiased and international sources. That’s why I’m constantly baffled at the prone position they take, bending over and accepting whatever form of denigration Bush and friends pound into them on a daily basis. Like some rape victims, today’s press wanders around dazed, in pain and fearful of fighting against their attacker. The solution to nibble at Bush’s habits makes them feel better, but the hollow feeling is still there.

Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) today announced their intention to investigate Guckert and his ability to bypass every security protocol the White House maintains. While I applaud their commitment to fairness in government (Conyers spearheaded the charge of voting irregularities last year), only journalism can investigate itself and figure out why they’re so willing to abandon their ethics in favor of spinning a little positive press the President’s way.

Making George W. Bush look good isn’t the responsibility of a reporter. I’ve come to expect lies from the government — I shouldn’t come to rely on the mainstream press to prop it up.