Time for Bush to define 'independent press'

The cafes and restaurants here were atwitter again last weekend. Finally, after years of talking about things like terrorism and deficits and Social Security reform, the capital's chatterers had a story they could discuss without reading a briefing paper.

Thank you, Jeff Gannon or James Guckert or whatever your name really is. It seems like old times again inside the Beltway.

In case you haven't heard the story, it goes something like this: Somehow, a "reporter" (his, not my, description of his work) calling himself Jeff Gannon, who worked for a conservative website called Talon News, got into the White House briefing room on a regular basis. He then would lob softball questions at the press secretary and even, on at least one occasion, the president.

Not interesting enough? OK, it turns out he was using an alias. His real name is James Guckert. And it turns out there are compromising photos of Mr. Guckert on some homoerotic websites.

Some on the left are angry because, they argue, if this had happened in a Democratic administration, hearings would already be scheduled on Capitol Hill. And some on the right call those on the left hypocrites for attacking a man for his lifestyle choices. In other words, yet another story is reduced to a discussion of the naughty bits. But there are bigger issues here. Democrats are almost certainly right that if this all happened in, say, the late 1990s, the Hill would be full of would-be executioners. But does that make that course of action any more right? And Republicans are right that there's too much glee in the Democrats' "How could this happen?" talk. But what exactly do you expect?

Guckert's life before becoming "Washington bureau chief" of Talon News is his own business. What exactly he did as a reporter is not.

The Guckert fiasco first surfaced because of a Jan. 26 press conference where President Bush called on Gannon/Guckert, who asked the president how he could work with Senate Democrats when they "seem to have divorced themselves from reality." Bush, like any good politician, stepped into that fat one and answered by giving a short outline of his many policy plans.

What was more interesting than that exchange, however, was the one that immediately preceded it at the same press conference - a back-and-forth with reporters about the administration's paying reporters for positive coverage, as the Education Department did with Armstrong Williams. "There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press," the president said.

The question is where Guckert fits into all this. True, the White House didn't pay him for coverage, we assume. But how exactly do he,and pseudo-reporters like him qualify as journalists and help create the "nice independent relationship" the president says he seeks?

Talon News is essentially a "news" mouthpiece for a conservative advocacy website called GOPUSA - that's GOP, as in Grand Old Party. The editor in chief of Talon is president of GOPUSA. On the conservative website Free Republic, Guckert called on others who use the site to demonstrate at Kerry headquarters during the presidential campaign. And many of his stories contained verbatim repeats of White House press releases.

So what? All journalists are biased in some way, say some conservatives. True, journalists are humans, and all humans are biased in some way. But Guckert crossed the line from having a bias to being a propagandist and party activist. Online he was a White House ditto-machine masquerading as reporter, and in the pressroom he was a safe place for Scott McClellan to go when the White House press secretary needed a lifeline during televised briefings.

For the average TV viewer, there's no difference between Guckert and the correspondents of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or the paper you're reading now, for that matter. And that's troublesome.

Even after the president's call for an independent relationship with the press, Guckert was back in the White House pressroom. Mr. McClellan even defended Guckert's place there. It was only later, when blogs exposed Guckert's previous Web exploits, that he resigned from Talon News.

It may be time for the White House to define some terms for all of us. What does a "nice independent relationship" with the press really mean? It's easy to see how people like Guckert fit with the "nice" part (at least from the White House perspective); it's the "independent" part that's not clear.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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