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Gannon and the Bloggers

A veteran reporter traces his first blog-aided journey through an investigative story.
 
 
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The Jeff Gannon affair has not yet morphed into a full-fledged political scandal, or retreated to the realm of embarrassing footnote, so this may be a good time to pause and reflect. At the center of the controversy: A man with no journalistic (but plenty of sex-site) experience who managed to cover the White House at close range for two years for an obscure online site called Talon News -- under an alias -- with the avowed aim of simply presenting the administration's case, unfiltered.

Whatever the merits of the uproar over this episode, it has proved extremely instructive for me, making possible my first immersion in the new world of blog-generated controversy.

Of course, I closely watched previous blog brouhahas, such as "Rathergate," but at some distance. This time I followed it from day one. The blogs helped drive E&P's online coverage (which drew national attention), and our coverage, in turn, fed the blogs. So this is an interesting case study in the tenuous new blog/mainstream relationship that has lately drawn much name-calling on either side.

The Gannon affair began in late January after the faux news reporter, who had drawn little notice, suddenly asked a too-puffy-to-ignore question at one of President Bush's rare press conferences. The fact that this strange fellow was not only in the room, but got called on, set tongues wagging. The Media Matters web site raised questions about Gannon and his long history of softball questions. Our own Joe Strupp got Gannon's phone number, and was first to interview him. He learned that "Gannon" was an alias, though the reporter would not reveal his true name.

By this time, the liberal blogs were probing Talon News, finding that it was closely affiliated with another site called GOPUSA.com. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the "pajamadeen" went to work on the alias angle. A few days later, the popular blogger Atrios suggested that Gannon's real name was James D. Guckert.

This is when I really started following the pursuit. It was amazing to see how many participants, at how many sites, took part, and the skills at their command, mainly web-based. The material the detectives at DailyKos and other blogs drew out of obscure or abandoned web sites -- and caches -- regarding Talon, Gannon, and a dozen other threads was astounding, although I couldn't quite tell if any of the searches and grabs required talents well beyond the reach of even the most advanced computer wonks.

Within 24 hours, the gumshoes had confirmed that Gannon was Guckert. Meanwhile, someone linked Guckert to setting up half a dozen sex-oriented web sites with names like militaryescort.com. Hours later someone else posted a screen capture of a "JDG" in his underwear from an abandoned AOL hometown page, and he sure looked like Gannon/Guckert. Certainly that was just coincidence?

Then Gannon/Guckert told Strupp that he had indeed set up sex sites "for a client," but claimed they had never been activated.

Well, I was growing impressed with blog research. Cutting away the over-the-top rhetoric, snarkiness, and conspiracy theories, most of their far-fetched facts were standing up. So when Americablog uncovered what appeared to be nude photos of Gannon/Guckert advertising his wares as an escort, along with something of a paper trail linking him to those sites, I was no longer skeptical. Soon The Washington Post was citing this evidence.

I won't go into the rest of that week, except to note that Strupp managed to get exclusive interviews with current White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and his predecessor, Ari Fleisher, who each made admissions that drew wide attention -- and gave the blogs even more leads. The mainstream media slowly came to the story, with the explosion occurring on Feb. 17, two weeks after the first Media Matters mention, although too many outlets have pooh-poohed the story.

Sure, there is plenty of junk-research out there on the blogs, and unproven or offensive comments still abound in the postings. But what surprised me the most were the resources the major blogs (as opposed to the Mom-and-Pop operations) can call upon for this type of story, enlisting experts around the country -- non-journalists, but people with similar, or even more highly developed, web skills.

And here's the nut of it: In the blogosphere, it's often asked, on both the left and right, "Why can't the mainstream media get to the bottom of these scandals like the blogs sometimes do?" Of course, one of the reasons is, they are simply too timid. But I understand another part of the answer now: No single news outlet has anywhere near the army of workers who toil, unpaid, at odd hours, for the larger blogs. To compete in this regard, Gannett would have to shut down some of its local papers and put their news staffs to work for USA Today . Then USA Today could throw a battalion of reporters at a hot issue -- like some blogs now can, and do.

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is the editor of E&P and the author of several books on politics and history.