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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Propagannon

Last week, as the Jeff Gannon/Jim Guckert/Fred Garvin story started breaking, we here at the Hammer were secretly lamenting that The Daily Show had picked that week to take their monthly vacation. (Must be rough.) Surely the story would blow over, we thought.

We're elated to be wrong. Last night's send-up of the Rear Admiral™ fiasco was a powerful one-two punch, and hilarious to boot, thanks to Jon Stewart's sheer inability to keep a straight face and look over at Stephen Colbert Ted Hitler.

But the points behind the punches are what we want to start addressing here. It has been fun hoisting this shameless jerk-off up on his own sanctimonious petard, though. Imagine for a second the unbridled gall it must have taken for this gay online escort/hustler to write a piece asserting that John Kerry would have been the first gay US President. (Let's forget about James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln for now.) It's probably not self-loathing so much as the whore's motto of being willing to do anything for a buck, and we do mean anything.

Anyway, the first punch TDS delivered is what a good salesman would call the "eye-catcher": the photos of the Admiral wearing nothing but underwear, dog-tags, and a "fill me up with 9 inches of man-meat and make it hurt" look on his face. These serve to underscore the sheer hypocrisy of an administration which has used gays as political currency to buy favor with the Christian evangelical politcial activists. And make no mistake, Guckert's connections with high-ranking members of this administration are only now starting to be uncovered.

This is where the second punch comes in. If the network news-readers get off their asses and start looking into all the behind-the-scenes players that the lefty bloggers have managed to dig up in the space of a couple of weeks, it could be a real body blow.

In the meantime, let's do Leslie "Wolf" Blitzer's fucking job for him. Ready?



A little background may be in order on this. The more obvious aspects of this White House's propaganda efforts (and that is exactly what they are) began last year with the "Karen Ryan" "reports", promotional videos produced by the Department of Health and Human Services that were purposely made to look like the product of a television news-reporting effort. The General Accounting Office promptly declared that these videos violated federal anti-propaganda laws. In the last month the HHS has been caught paying not one, but two conservative columnists, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, to advise the HHS on its marriage initiatives. Apparently the escape clause is that neither columnist was explicitly told to promote White House policy in their columns. But by an amazing coincidence, they went ahead and did precisely that.

Then, of course, there's Armstrong Williams, who was paid $241,000 by the Department of Education to shill the "No Child Left Behind Policy", which is generally considered an abject failure, even by Republicans.

This article has a pretty good rundown of the specifics of the White House's journalistic propaganda operations that have been uncovered thus far.

"Over the past several years, the Bush administration has learned that it can engage the press in an adversarial way, and the public won't mind. It's yet another step in managed news," says Tom Hollihan, another journalism expert at USC's Annenberg School.

These include screening the people who attend meetings that appear to have a town-hall format, and bypassing the national media to go directly to local media where, he says, "there are more softball questions."


You may recall snippets of those pseudo-town-hall meetings during last summer's campaign, where some drone would stand up to ask Himself a sub-Larry King softball of a question, or even just make a declaration along the lines of, "I just thank the Lord God Jesus Christ of the United States of Sanctified America that you're our President and Grand Deacon, sir. May I tea-bag you for a few minutes while you take the next question?"

That such craven, mewling shite even made it to public airwaves ought to be grounds for another propaganda investigation.



Our next witness for the prosecution is none other than Maureen Dowd. This is quite remarkable in itself, for us to even consider sourcing someone who has tragically fallen from second-rate Sex and the City-isms to using her column to find a man. (Yeah, that's gonna work, dear. I bang you, I forget to call you, and the whole goddamned world reads about it the next day. What guy wouldn't line up for that in a heartbeat?)

But when Dowd gets serious and on her game, she can actually be quite good. Some thought-provoking paragraphs:

I'm still mystified by this story. I was rejected for a White House press pass at the start of the Bush administration, but someone with an alias, a tax evasion problem and Internet pictures where he posed like the "Barberini Faun" is credentialed to cover a White House that won a second term by mining homophobia and preaching family values?

At first when I tried to complain about not getting my pass renewed, even though I'd been covering presidents and first ladies since 1986, no one called me back. Finally, when Mr. McClellan replaced Ari Fleischer, he said he'd renew the pass - after a new Secret Service background check that would last several months.

In an era when security concerns are paramount, what kind of Secret Service background check did James Guckert get so he could saunter into the West Wing every day under an assumed name while he was doing full-frontal advertising for stud services for $1,200 a weekend? He used a driver's license that said James Guckert to get into the White House, then, once inside, switched to his alter ego, asking questions as Jeff Gannon.

Mr. McClellan shrugged this off to Editor & Publisher magazine, oddly noting, "People use aliases all the time in life, from journalists to actors."

I know the F.B.I. computers don't work, but this is ridiculous. After getting gobsmacked by the louche sagas of Mr. Guckert and Bernard Kerik, the White House vetters should consider adding someone with some blogging experience.

....

With the Bushies, if you're their friend, anything goes. If you're their critic, nothing goes. They're waging a jihad against journalists - buying them off so they'll promote administration programs, trying to put them in jail for doing their jobs and replacing them with ringers.

....

They flipped TV's in the West Wing and Air Force One to Fox News. They paid conservative columnists handsomely to promote administration programs. Federal agencies distributed packaged "news" video releases with faux anchors so local news outlets would run them. As CNN reported, the Pentagon produces Web sites with "news" articles intended to influence opinion abroad and at home, but you have to look hard for the disclaimer: "Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense." The agencies spent a whopping $88 million spinning reality in 2004, splurging on P.R. contracts.

Even the Nixon White House didn't do anything this creepy. It's worse than hating the press. It's an attempt to reinvent it.


This is exactly the problem at hand. Every president has had adversarial relations with certain partisan elements in the press. You could no more fault Bush's reluctance to speak to Mo Dowd than you could fault Clinton if he refused to engage, say, some window-licker from the Moonie Times.

But the PR shenanigans pulled by this administration, literally using taxpayer dollars to bamboozle them with fake newsmen and Potemkin "news" agencies -- which not only regurgitate administration talking points, but are literally bought, funded, and run by GOP delegates and party members -- are unprecedented. This is quite literally the sort of thing that goes on in banana republics, or the old Soviet Union. It is of a piece with pinning this nation's highest honor on a failed moron like George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, pretending everything is a monumental success and glory while the facts burn all around us.



All right. Next batter up is Frank Rich, who cuts ever closer to the bone on this issue.

But it shouldn't distract from the real question - that is, the real news - of how this fake newsman might be connected to a White House propaganda machine that grows curiouser by the day. Though Mr. McClellan told Editor & Publisher magazine that he didn't know until recently that Mr. Guckert was using an alias, Bruce Bartlett, a White House veteran of the Reagan-Bush I era, wrote on the nonpartisan journalism Web site Romenesko, that "if Gannon was using an alias, the White House staff had to be involved in maintaining his cover." (Otherwise, it would be a rather amazing post-9/11 security breach.)

By my count, "Jeff Gannon" is now at least the sixth "journalist" (four of whom have been unmasked so far this year) to have been a propagandist on the payroll of either the Bush administration or a barely arms-length ally like Talon News while simultaneously appearing in print or broadcast forums that purport to be real news.


In Rich's article, while the efforts of Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart in getting to the heart of the matter are commendable, the real unsung hero may be Bruce Bartlett, for pointing out the obvious -- Guckert could not have done all this on his own. It's the fucking White House -- they don't just let in the guy from your local street sheet to these things, and they sure as fuck don't call on them. As Salon's intrepid Eric Boehlert points out,

"It is a huge deal for Bush to pick on you at a press conferences," says a member of the White House press corps. "There are people in the press room who have covered Bush for four years and haven't had a chance to ask him a question."


He's right. This administration has been notoriously hostile to significant portions of the media, and even to the notion of press conferences in general. They've had more lately than is normal, but this administration has still had far fewer than any in recent history. In an era of multiple (and spreading) wars, and a precipitous economy with a sinking dollar and iffy job market, this can be safely assumed to be a cynical interpretation of the "no news is good news" axiom, I suppose. Whatever. Bottom line is, Bush only calls on people he knows and likes. Everybody knows this. So somebody vetted this asshole.

But at long last, along with Bruce Bartlett's helpfully obvious clue, this last is the true crux of the biscuit:

Thanks to the continued digging by online sleuths, there's now documented evidence that Guckert attended White House briefings as early as February 2003. Guckert, using his alias "Jeff Gannon," once boasted online about asking then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer a question at the Feb. 28, 2003, briefing. The date is significant because in order to receive a White House press pass, Guckert would have needed to prove that he worked for a news organization that, in the words of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, "published regularly," in itself an extraordinarily low threshold. Critics have charged that while Talon News may publish regularly, it boasts a nearly all-volunteer news team which includes not a single person with actual journalism experience. (The team does, though, have quite a bit of experience working on Republican campaigns.) In other words, the outfit is not legitimate nor independent, two criteria often used in Washington, D.C., to receive press credentials.

But what's significant about the February 2003 date is that Talon did not even exist then. The organization was created in late March 2003, and began publishing online in early April 2003. Gannon, a jack of all trades who spent time in the military as well as working at an auto repair shop (not to mention escorting), has already stated publicly that Talon News was his first job in journalism. That means he wasn't working for any other news outlet in February 2003 when he was spotted by C-Span cameras inside the White House briefing room. And that means Guckert was ushered into the White House press room in February 2003 for a briefing despite the fact he was not a journalist.

Whereas it was once suspected that White House press officials in charge of doling out coveted press passes went easy on Guckert, a Republican partisan working for an amateurish news outlet who would routinely ask softball questions, it now appears those same unnamed White House officials simply ignored all established credential standards -- including detailed security guidelines -- and gave Guckert White House access, even though he had no professional standing whatsoever.

....
The day pass requires just a minimal background check. It was designed to be used on a temporary basis, such as for reporters coming in from out of town to cover the White House for a brief period. Guckert, though, with the help of somebody inside the press office, turned the day pass system into his own revolving door. That was when he was at least working for Talon News.

To learn Guckert was waved into the White House for fourth estate briefings even before he was affiliated with any kind of news outlet is startling.


Startling, to say the least. As Boehlert points out, Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Reps. Slaughter (D-NY) and Conyers (D-MI) have already filed under the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of this.

The jig is up for the Rear Admiral™. What remains is the spin that the hypocritical, shameless right will try to put on all this, and whether this spurs any true investigative journalists out there to do their goddamned jobs for once, to grow a pair and stop letting bloggers wipe their asses for them. Editorial "discretion" at a commercial media outlet is simply no excuse; obviously anyone can put up a website and say whatever they know. Put the facts out, provide some commentary and analysis, and don't just let the chips fall where they may, but knock 'em over. We're on the sixth 'turf hack found out in just the last few months or so. Gee, you think there might be more where that came from.

Eric Boehlert can't do it all by himself. As we said here a month or so ago, while Dan Rather's career fades into that good night, he does not have to go quietly. He has nothing left to lose, unless he wants to let these shameless assholes take his pride as well.

Go hard, Dan. Die with your boots on. Take the game to these guys. Be a man, for Christ's sake.



One last thing: throughout the antics and mal-fee-ance of this toxic administration, I have found myself retreating more and more to a mantra which I find a bit unseemly -- that if any (and I mean any) of this shit had happened during the Clinton years, we'd never have heard the end of it. It's become a fairly popular web-abbreviation, IOKIYAR (It's OK If You're A Republican).

I am uncomfortable with it because in an empirical sense (and after all the pimp-slaps, we do make an honest attempt to be reality- and fact-based here at The Hammer), it requires speculation and conjecture, the syllogistic equivalent of attempting to prove a negative.

And yet, as much as Clinton's unceasing bullshit annoyed me at the time, I am as certain of this mantra as I am of practically any empirically-based point of knowledge. There is no doubt in my mind that if Al Gore had yanked us into a failed war on false pretenses and idealistic whimsy, the Limbaugh/Hannity/Coulter wing of factoid manufacture would have used any and every pretext to concoct as wild of a scenario as you like.

That alone is as good as any reason to not listen to their hypocritical bullshit about picking on a helpless gay guy. They're cynically trying to "Matthew Shepard" him, and pray to their greenback god that this all just goes away. If we let that happen this time around, with all that lies beneath the surface of a couple of oogy dog-tag photos on a gay hustler website, then maybe we deserve to keep losing.

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