Thursday, February 17, 2005

Gannongate and "Real" News

Being a slightly impetuous fellow, I don't want to wait until Sunday to read Frank Rich's media column in the NYT, which is a bit of pure joy near the end of the work week. His most recent focuses on the White House manipulation of news items, especially the continuously unfolding (or disrobing) story of Jeff Gannon, or whoever he is. (In statistical analysis, we call this "massaging the data," which might be a bit too revealing for the Family Hour on TV.)

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. Of these six, two have been syndicated newspaper columnists paid by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the administration's "marriage" initiatives. The other four have played real newsmen on TV. Before Mr. Guckert and Armstrong Williams, the talking head paid $240,000 by the Department of Education, there were Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia. Let us not forget these pioneers - the Woodward and Bernstein of fake news. They starred in bogus reports ("In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting," went the script) pretending to "sort through the details" of the administration's Medicare prescription-drug plan in 2004. Such "reports," some of which found their way into news packages distributed to local stations by CNN, appeared in more than 50 news broadcasts around the country and have now been deemed illegal "covert propaganda" by the Government Accountability Office.

And, in an even-more penetrating analysis, Rich reminds us about prescreened and scripted town hall meetings, faux "news" channels run by the Pentagon, and government "minders" for the Washington press corps.

It is a brilliant strategy. When the Bush administration isn't using taxpayers' money to buy its own fake news, it does everything it can to shut out and pillory real reporters who might tell Americans what is happening in what is, at least in theory, their own government. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post discovered that even at an inaugural ball he was assigned "minders" - attractive women who wouldn't give him their full names - to let the revelers know that Big Brother was watching should they be tempted to say anything remotely off message.

The inability of real journalists to penetrate this White House is not all the White House's fault. The errors of real news organizations have played perfectly into the administration's insidious efforts to blur the boundaries between the fake and the real and thereby demolish the whole notion that there could possibly be an objective and accurate free press. Conservatives, who supposedly deplore post-modernism, are now welcoming in a brave new world in which it's a given that there can be no empirical reality in news, only the reality you want to hear (or they want you to hear). The frequent fecklessness of the Beltway gang does little to penetrate this Washington smokescreen.

Last November, I listened to Terri Gross interview New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg on Fresh Air. His observation - and a good one at that - was that the Bush administration's ethical tribulations up to that time mirrored those of the Nixon administration just prior to the 1972 election - only months before the Watergate break-in was splashed over the front page of the Washington Post. Gannongate, and other "suprises" released only after the election (i.e., FAA reports on Al-Qaeda ignored by Rice and others), might just be the beginning of something big and sordid.

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