"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Doubts About White House Reporter Recalled
New York Times
Published: February 18, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 - A former Bush administration official said Thursday that a reporter calling himself Jeff Gannon who presented questionable news credentials from an obscure Internet organization, Gopusa, aroused suspicions at the White House a few years ago.

The official, Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary, said he briefly stopped calling on the reporter at the daily briefings.

"I thought, 'I need to look into this and see if he's part of the Republican Party,' " Mr. Fleischer said in an interview on Thursday.

Mr. Fleischer said a telephone conversation that he had with the organization's president and chief executive, Robert R. Eberle, satisfied him that the writer met his one standard for access to the West Wing briefing room, that he was not directly financed by a political party.

Now, a series of damaging disclosures about the writer, whose real name is James D. Guckert, forced him to resign from Talon News, a Web offshoot of Gopusa.

Democrats have demanded to know how a man who was apparently a partisan worker obtained press credentials and special access to the briefings. He was often called on by officials, including President Bush, and asked softball questions.

Since it became known last week that he had hid his real identity, reports on some Web sites and in The Washington Post linked him to sexually explicit Web sites that have fueled the story and embarrassed White House officials who for years waved him into the building.

Mr. Guckert did not respond to e-mail messages seeking comment. In interviews last week with CNN, he said he had resigned from Talon News after his family had been threatened. He characterized Talon News as a "legitimate, conservative online news service."

Asked about sexually explicit Web sites that he might have worked on, Mr. Guckert said he "had registered various domain names for a private client," but did not elaborate.

Over the last few years, Mr. Guckert's frequent presence and slanted questions at White House briefings elicited smirks and raised eyebrows from other reporters. The White House press pool tends to attract a wider variety of personalities than those covering other major government agencies because the work is more high profile, with regularly scheduled briefings that are often televised.

Mr. Guckert's nom de plume, Jeff Gannon, and the Talon News service he worked for did not set off any alarm bells in a room that also includes a representative from The Corporate Crime Reporter, The India Globe and Les Kinsolving, the host of a provocative radio talk show.

"This is an irritant that we deal with, people who try to hijack the briefing for ideological reasons," said Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. "A few people are in there just to get across their points of view. But it's the kind of thing we put up with, because nobody can quite figure out how to deal with it."

Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidency scholar at Towson University who has been tracking the relationship between the White House and the press corps since the Ford administration, said: "More people have come out of the woodwork with the televised briefing, because it gives them an opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about. They don't ask questions. If you listened to Jeff's questions, they were never questions. They were statements."

It was Mr. Guckert's appearance at a presidential news conference on Jan. 26 that exposed him to a national television audience and placed him in the sights of bloggers on the lookout for suspicious activity in the White House.

"How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" Mr. Guckert asked Mr. Bush, referring to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Internet bloggers quickly searched his name and linked the name Jeff Gannon and Talon News back to Gopusa, a subscription Web service founded by Mr. Eberle, a Republican in Houston.

The mission statement of Gopusa is "to spread the conservative message throughout America," its Web site says. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Eberle, also known as Bobby, made no apologies for his efforts to build a news service with a conservative slant.

Mr. Eberle said he started Talon News as an offshoot two years ago in an effort to build a news agency that would appear more objective and whose purpose was to sell reports to outside subscribers.

"If someone were to see 'Gopusa,' there's an instant built-in bias there," Mr. Eberle said. "I thought, well, if you want to pursue this business idea of building up a news service, it's best to keep it separate."

Talon has employed 8 to 15 people as full- or part-time reporters, Mr. Eberle said. He declined to discuss details in Mr. Guckert's case.

One of the most widely debated questions has been Mr. Guckert's access to the White House, which is usually limited to well-established news organizations and off limits to paid political workers. In an environment where the lines between advocacy journalism and partisan activity are blurred, Mr. Guckert appears to have gained access as a fringe participant who never sought entry through the usual channels but instead returned repeatedly for temporary passes.

The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said on Thursday night that Mr. Guckert had used his real name in applying for day passes. He never applied for a permanent pass, known as a "hard pass," which is granted after a thorough background check by the Secret Service and has much tighter restrictions, Mr. McClellan said.

Holders of hard passes are required to have permanent addresses in the Washington metropolitan region and hold accreditation from the Senate or House press galleries, among other requirements.

The standards for a one-day pass are less ironclad. After a visiting reporter has passed an instant background check - primarily using the name, Social Security number and date of birth to check against criminal records - it is up to lower-level White House press aides to decide whether a particular news organization can have access to the briefing room. In Mr. Guckert's case, after he had established himself as a reporter, he faced no further questions about his credentials when he called seeking access, former and current White House officials said.

About two dozen reporters are given one-day passes each day, Mr. McClellan said. In most cases they are correspondents whose organizations do not qualify for hard passes or whose companies have exceeded their limit. The White House says 972 hard passes are in circulation.

"The credentialing is all handled at the staff assistant level," Mr. McClellan said.