An Identity Crisis Unfolds in a Not-So-Elite Press Corps

Times Staff Writer

Its members work inside one of the most secure facilities in the nation, the White House, and they get to question America’s most senior leaders, including the president.

Yet the White House press corps is not the thoroughly screened and scrubbed journalistic elite Americans might presume. Along with stars of the country’s major media organizations, it has long included eccentrics, fringe players and characters of uncertain lineage.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 27, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Jeff Gannon -- An article in Friday’s Section A incorrectly quoted Jeff Gannon, then with the website Talon News, as asking President Bush at a news conference how he could work with Democrats “who seem to have distanced themselves from reality.” In fact, in asking his question, Gannon said “divorced” from reality.

And now, a semi-impostor has forced the White House and the mainstream reporters covering it to address a basic question:


What is a journalist?

It’s a question the press corps and White House officials have tended to duck in the past -- each for their own reasons. For reporters, policing the ranks smacks of undermining the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. For White House officials, it has always seemed like an invitation to endless argument about who should be in and who should not -- especially when newsletters, bloggers, cable news channels, satellite radio stations and Internet sites all claim a share of the turf that once belonged to a relative handful of news organizations.

Last month, however, the subject broke into the open after a reporter for the website Talon News asked President Bush how he could work on Social Security and other domestic initiatives with Democrats “who seem to have distanced themselves from reality.”

The openly scornful and seemingly partisan description of congressional Democrats startled some veterans of the White House press room. And they wondered how Bush came to call on the relatively obscure reporter -- not just this time, but on previous occasions as well.

That was only the beginning.

Left-wing bloggers soon revealed that the reporter, whom colleagues knew as Jeff Gannon, was really named James Dale Guckert. They also disclosed that Talon News was owned by an avowedly partisan website called GOPUSA. The website in turn was the creation of a conservative Texas political activist named Bobby Eberle.

That stirred a furor over how a seeming Republican agent got clearance to attend White House briefings as a journalist. Soon Gannon resigned.

Then gay activists, indulging in what one media critic called “bloglust,” posted on the Internet homoerotic photos of Gannon advertising himself as a $200-an-hour gay escort.

“I’ve made mistakes in my past,” Gannon told the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz. “Does my past mean I can’t have a future? Does it disqualify me from being a journalist?”

Apparently not.

Gannon did not have a permanent White House press pass that requires an FBI background check. Those who carry it have clear access to the White House and frequently travel with the president. And the Standing Committee of Correspondents on Capitol Hill, which accredits more than 2,000 journalists who write for daily news organizations, refused to give him a congressional press pass.

But Gannon was admitted to the White House on a regular basis over the last two years. Applying as Guckert, he was given a series of one-day passes.

Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview that he created day passes in response to a federal court decision in the late 1970s requiring the White House to admit all journalists unless the Secret Service deemed them threats to the president or his immediate family.

The lawsuit involved Robert Sherrill of the Nation, who was denied a press pass on the Secret Service’s recommendation because, it turned out, he had punched out the press secretary to the governor of Florida.

The White House press corps has since attracted an array of unusual personalities. There was Naomi Nover of the Nover News Service. No one ever saw her work published, but Nover -- whose coif of white hair somewhat resembled George Washington’s wig -- got past a security cordon during a Reagan trip to China after a reporter showed guards a U.S. dollar bill as evidence of how important she was.

Lester Kinsolving, conservative radio commentator, wore a clerical collar to White House briefings in the Reagan years. His loud voice and off-beat, argumentative questions often provoked laughter. President Clinton, to lighten up the proceedings, often called on Sarah McLendon, who worked for a string of small newspapers in Texas and called herself a citizen journalist unafraid to blast government bureaucrats.

“If you look at the question Gannon asked, it obviously reflected his conservative views,” Fitzwater said.

“But it’s no different from the ones Helen Thomas [formerly of United Press International, now of Hearst] asked of Reagan, or Dan Rather [of CBS] asked in his more famous comments about Richard Nixon.

“This guy [Gannon] got caught and he’s a little weirder than most -- but he’s no weirder than Evelyn Y. Davis,” said Fitzwater, referring to the shareholder advocate who covers the White House for her corporate newsletter, “Highlights and Lowlights.”

“I’ve always thought it was dangerous for the White House to get into the business of defining who is and is not a member of the press corps,” said Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. “That is better done by the news media.”

Reporters, too, seem reluctant to join the fray. The White House Correspondents Assn. met last week with White House spokesman Scott McClellan, but no action has been taken.

“We wanted to err on the side of inclusion,” said Steve Scully of C-SPAN, who serves on the executive board. “Once you start dictating who is a journalist, you go down a slippery slope.”

Former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who gave Gannon a day pass even before Talon News was launched, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that at one point he hesitated to call on the reporter, then resumed after being assured he was not a GOP plant.

Still, the impression lingers for some that the Bush White House -- with its reputation for stage-managing the news -- orchestrated softball questions. Others say the White House is simply a magnet for those eager to usurp its stage.

“I look at the Gannon story -- I used to refer to him as Jeff GOP -- as demonstrating the impact of televising the press briefing,” said Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University.

“The television lens has brought into the briefing room people who have a political viewpoint and find the briefing a way to express it.”