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Sex, Lies and Spies: This Isn't News?

An experimental column in which the Los Angeles Times invites outside critics to slap around a newspaper whose editorial endorsed TWO candidates for mayor. *

Bloggers uncover that someone working as a reporter in the West Wing is also advertising himself as a $200-an-hour gay escort — someone whose name, a year earlier, had appeared in the U.S. attorney's subpoena of White House documents during the investigation of the Valerie Plame-CIA scandal.

The mainstream media, including the Los Angeles Times, remains largely silent. Why?

The story of James D. Guckert (a.k.a. Jeff Gannon) broke Jan. 26. It started as a blip of a controversy over a little-known "reporter" for a conservative website asking a kiss-up question at a White House briefing. Bloggers investigated "Gannon's" identity and found that he had little training in journalism and an apparent connection to male prostitution. Bloggers wanted to know how someone with this background had for two years received White House "day pass" press credentials. Within days, the story exploded online, yet it took a month for The Times to give the story a mention, and then its coverage was a textbook case of how not to write the news.

The piece cited or quoted by name five sources as well as an unnamed media critic — none expressing any outrage — as well as Guckert himself. It failed to quote the bloggers who broke this story — including me — or anyone who thought Guckert's ability to waltz through security with a pseudonym and get within a few feet of the president during a time of war might be a serious issue.

That's not to say we Internet sleuths didn't get an honorary mention. The story called us "left-wing bloggers" and "gay activists" (not all of us are), diminishing our credibility and helping to keep our ample and well-sourced evidence out of public discourse.

It's not as if bloggers were the only ones on the case. Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Richard Durbin, Edward M. Kennedy, Frank Lautenberg and John Kerry have asked the White House to investigate. And senior House Democrats have called on the federal prosecutor investigating the leaking of the identity of CIA agent Plame to subpoena Guckert's diary.

In labeling the story "White House Notebook" and treating it largely as a look at the imprecision of attempting to define "journalist," The Times missed the more serious news angle — the apparent breach of White House security by someone with a troubling past.

And then there are the obvious questions about whether he might somehow fit into the Bush administration's ongoing campaign to neutralize the media by paying off pundits like Armstrong Williams. If nothing else, there's a story too in the fact that the administration has said nothing since the story broke about its pressroom ally's extracurricular activities — a rank case of family values hypocrisy.

I can think of three possible reasons The Times didn't cover this obviously major story with any vigor:

(1) Trepidation about gays, sex and power. In the age of wardrobe malfunctions, news organizations are extra cautious about covering anything involving s-e-x. And a gay angle only makes things more confusing. Would you be anti-gay or pro-gay if you wrote about an allegedly homophobic journalist who happened to be gay? Answer: Allegations of prostitution aren't just about someone's private life, they're about a crime that can lead to blackmail, especially if state secrets are involved. And in any case, your readers are adults — give them the facts and let them decide for themselves.

(2) Reverse liberal guilt. Too sensitive to right-wing accusations of being liberal, traditional media have overcompensated by becoming too timid in covering certain stories. They seem loath to aggressively report on scandals involving Republican politicians, in general, and this White House in particular.

(3) Blogophobia. Liberal bloggers scare the mainstream media. Media critics fret over our supposed lack of professional credentials, even though many of us are journalists. They doubt our facts but don't independently investigate the stories.

The lack of coverage plays into the hands of the White House. Mainstream media editors act as if our investigation of Guckert is about prurience and lacks merit. But there is more than enough evidence to make any reporter want to check out the possibilities of White House deception and media manipulation.

The Times' editors shouldn't allow themselves to think they are above the fray. In truth, they are failing to speak truth to power.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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