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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Kabuki Ethics

Perhaps I'm being obtuse. I had some dental work this week that was quite unpleasant so perhaps I accidentally spit my higher brain function down that cute little sink next to the torture chair. Am I reading correctly that the funniest man in the universe is obliquely scolding himself and the rest of us for flogging the Jeff Gannon story? Why yes, I believe he is and now that I think about it, it's a darned good idea.

He admits how difficult it is to resist the urge to giggle incessantly and point out every word in a Gannon piece that his inner Beavis finds suggestive, but he concludes that pursuing this story is the work of the devil and oh is he ever right. The Poorman isn't the only sharp guy to make the point that the Gannon story is somehow wrong, though. As this article in TAPPED points out, the major lefty magazines, with the exception of Salon (a bunch of "San Francisco liberals" ) have all tip-toed around this story very delicately. David Corn has wrestled with his demons in public however and gives un an insight into the problem:

Should the White House have handed a daily press pass to a reporter who turned tricks on the side? Was it hypocritical of the Bush White House to have done so? Was it a security lapse to let a pseudonymous fellow and possible felon close to the president? Gannon/Guckert and Talon ought to have been vetted more closely regarding their journalistic credentials. But I will not gripe if the White House press office decides it is not its job to investigate the personal lives and websites of those who apply for access to the press room. Some of Gannon/Guckert's critics have suggested that he was allowed into the White House due to some sort of gay connection. One site has used the Gannon/Guckert affair to float unsubstantiated rumors about the sex life of Scott McClellan. This is fair game--but only for journalistic investigation, not for throw-it-and-see-if-it-sticks postings. If there is evidence that McClellan is a gay GOP hypocrite or that Gannon/Guckert had an advantage because he was literally in bed with a White House official, that's a news story. Otherwise, it's smear-by-blogging. Last year, I spent months talking to a professional dominatrix who claimed she had been hired several times by a prominent Republican who does the family-values shtick. I examined her allegations the best I could. But I could not substantiate her claim, which I found credible. I had nothing to publish, nothing specific to blog.

It's certainly embarrassing to the Bush White House that its press operation accepted a reporter who was an actual or wannabe prostitute. But this is not the same as paying columnists to shill for the administration, producing pro-administration propaganda packaged as news reports, mounting fake town meetings, or restricting the number of press conferences. And to date there is no compelling evidence that the White House recruited or deployed Gannon/Guckert as a plant. It really had little cause to do so. Both Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan have demonstrated they can duck questions ably on their own.

This is what responsible journalism and ethical blogging are all about. We wouldn't want people to hear unsubstantiated gossip. That's why he writes that he refused to report or blog about the credible dominatrix who couldn't provide proof of her allegations that "she had been hired several times by a prominent Republican who does the family-values shtick." I would imagine that a certain "Virtues Czar” has been quaking in his leather chaps over this story and is mightily relieved that Corn has decided not to blog about it. I'm sure everyone will take Corn's ethical lead and refuse to give this story another moment's consideration. It wouldn't be right and I simply do not want to participate in such activity. I do plan to write a lot about this kind of good journalism, however, the kind where you don't report on stories about credible dominatrixes and disgraced moralizing gamblers without proof.

I think the press should continue to wring its collective hands about this story in just this way, over and over again. They should discuss its various ins and outs (hello, beavis) in great detail, just as Corn does.

Just how can it be that somebody would hire a male prostitute with no journalism experience to work for a vanity GOP web site who then lobbed softballs in the White House press room and transcribed press releases? Yet it happened. Should we cover that?

I think they should explore in great depth whether this reaches the level of scandal that the Armstrong Williams scandal does. They should compare them, calling attention to the fact that Williams was paid $250k in taxpayer money. Perhaps they should also publicly ponder whether they should cover the fact that Williams was sued for sexual harassment by a male employee and settled for an undisclosed sum.

Is that relevant? I just don't know. Let's discuss.

Is the fact that Gannon appears to have been only paid a "stipend" enough to wonder how he was getting paid all those months and should we follow up on why GOPUSA is taking down its web-site, scrubbing it's articles and appears to be funded with nothing but air?

Is that really a story? Gosh I'm so conflicted.

And I think it would be very therapeutic for the pundit class to publicly ponder whether the fact that the GOP has made a fetish (shut up beavis) out of subtly gay bashing the entire Democratic Party for a generation leaves them open to more questions than usual when it turns out that they are paying conservative gay columnists who also bash gays with taxpayer money and allowing fake marine male hookers into the White House under unusual circumstances.

Is this a legitimate rap on the Republicans or not? I think a nice long New York Times magazine piece is in order don't you? Just to try to sort out the ethics involved.

And as far as Democratic political operatives are concerned, I would think they need to talk to anyone and everyone about their angst over exploiting this issue. Is it right for the Democrats to point out that the family values Republican elite are hob knobbing with gay hookers?

Gosh, I just don't know if it's right to point out that the very religious administration of George W. Bush doesn't practice what it preaches. Is that really ethical?

Yes, I think there is a serious ethical dilemma that must be worked out before we can proceed with this story. It's time for an open, cleansing dialog about whether the story of the male hooker/GOP activist/ White House reporter with the very graphic naked pictures he posted all over the internet should be pursued. I'd hate for the press to do something unethical with this.

Update: There was an excellent article back in January in the NYRB by Mark Danner called "Why Bush Really Won." I wrote a couple of posts about it at the time. Here are some letters to the editor regarding that piece that I think are very relevant to this GannonGuckert issue. I urge you to read the whole thing. One can certainly understand the moral dilemma of the press corps when you consider something like this:

On March 5, for example, The New York Times published a piece headlined "Bush Campaigns Amid a Furor over Ads," about a supposed controversy over the campaign's first television ads, which offered a glimpse of a dead fireman being carried out of the World Trade Center site. In the article the Times reporters revealed that the campaign was "scrambling to counter criticism that his first television commercials crassly politicized the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." Indeed, the controversy was so serious, according to the Times, that it had "complicated efforts by Republicans to seize the initiative after months in which Mr. Bush has often been on the defensive." Newsweek, for its part, in an article headlined "A 'Shocking' Stumble," reported that the ad controversy "threw campaign officials on the defensive—and raised questions about the Bush team's ability to effectively spend its massive $150 million war chest, some GOP insiders say."

Seven months later, and two weeks after the election, Newsweek published another and very different "inside account," this one based on exclusive access to the campaigns which was granted on the understanding that nothing from this reporting would be published until after the election.[*] Here is what Newsweek's writers now told us about what "two Bush strategists" really thought of their campaign's "shocking stumble":

McKinnon and Dowd were ecstatic. At a strategy meeting the next day—the same morning the Times headline appeared—they joked about how they could fan the flames. Controversy sells, they said. It meant lots of "free media"; the ads were shown over and over again on news shows, particularly on cable TV. The "visual" of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of the nation's darkest hour—and Bush's finest, when he climbed on the rock pile with a bullhorn. What's more, the story eclipsed some grim economic news....

At that Saturday's Breakfast Club, they were still laughing about the ad flap.... Dowd told the group they had received $6 million to $7 million worth of free ad coverage. "Unfortunately, we've been talking about 9/11 and our ads for five days," Dowd deadpanned at a senior staff meeting. "We're going to try to pivot back to the economy as soon as we can."

There were chuckles all around.

So much for the "inside story." As so often in journalism, the source offered the reporter access and the scoop; in exchange, the reporter in effect granted the source— in this case, the Bush strategist—the power to shape the storyline. The reporter thus publishes a supposed "inside story" about "scrambling" within the campaign that is in effect a kind of "false bottom" constructed by the campaign itself and intended to "fan the flames" of what is in fact a largely bogus story. The deeper reality—in this case, the determination to focus relentlessly on September 11 and the President's "leadership" role in it ("the nation's darkest hour and Bush's finest") and thus to emphasize the "masculine" values of steadiness, forthrightness, and strength that this role exemplified—may have been plain to those political professionals who were looking closely but it was much less clear to voters relying on the press for the supposed "inside story" of the campaign. The Bush campaign's "shocking stumble" was, in Daniel Boorstin's term, a "pseudo-event"; indeed, our political campaigns are built largely of such pseudo-events and rely fundamentally on the press and the commentariat to play their necessary part in constructing them and conveying them to the public. Both sides are immersed in this language, of course, and it is hard to see, given the terms of the game, how Democrats could "challenge the Republican story directly"—or even what "directly," in this context, might actually mean.

One can certainly understand, after reading that, why so many in the press are worried about violating journalistic ethics by reporting about Gannon. It's not a real story.


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