Politics & Policy

Gannons to The Left of Me

Softball reporter questions were routine in the Clinton White House.

Stunned by the liberal mini-tempest over Talon News reporter “Jeff Gannon” (real name: James Guckert) asking a softball question to President Bush on January 26, leaders of the White House Correspondents Association met with Bush press spokesman Scott McClellan Tuesday to discuss tightening up the press-credentialing process.

Liberal media elitists say they want only “real” journalists, not “partisan operatives,” to be allowed in the White House briefing room. But what they really might wind up accomplishing with their “Gannongate” pounding was the silencing of rare right-leaning voice in the White House press corps. To them, you can only be “authentic” by pounding the president from the left.

At the Columbia Journalism Review blog, Brian Montopoli claims “this isn’t a media bias issue, no matter how hard you spin it…Real journalists, the ones who belong in press conferences, know that access to a president is a rare gift, and they know enough not to squander it. Gannon threw away his opportunity in favor of self-aggrandizing partisan spectacle. He put himself and his agenda ahead of the public good, and he did it in a manner so egregious that he left little doubt of his intentions. If both sides of the debate, blinded by partisan zeal, don’t realize that’s the real reason he had to go, they’ve missed the point.”

Montopoli cannot be serious. If anyone who asked softball questions at the White House “had to go,” the White House briefing room would have almost emptied out in the Clinton years. The problem for Montopoli and other liberals is they seem to think that the need for an adversarial press emerged in 2001, when President Bush was first inaugurated. If we travel back to the Clinton era, it’s not hard to discover a whole chorus of White House reporters who, to use Montopoli’s words, squandered their access to Clinton with helpful softball questions, who put his agenda ahead of the public good and made a partisan spectacle of themselves in front of a large number of Americans who wanted the press to act as a watchdog of President Clinton.

Review the press conference transcript from March 19, 1999–President Clinton’s first solo press conference in almost a year (blame the Lewinsky scandal) and his first meeting with the press since the impeachment process crumbled in the Senate, and since Juanita Broaddrick charged on the February 24 edition of NBC’s Dateline that Clinton had raped her in 1978.

After some questions about Kosovo and Chinese espionage came what liberals might call Gannon #1, Wolf Blitzer of CNN: “Mr. President, there’s been a lot of people in New York state who’ve spoken with your wife, who seem to be pretty much convinced she wants to run for the Senate seat next year. A, how do you feel about that? Do you think she would be a good senator? And as part of a broader question involving what has happened over the past year, how are the two of you doing in trying to strengthen your relationship, given everything you and she have been through over this past year?” Clinton replied: “Well, on the second question, I think we’re–we’re working hard. We love each other very much, and we’re working on it. On the first question, I don’t have any doubt that she would be a magnificent senator.” That might be a question people would like to hear answered, but it definitely placed the Clintons’ agenda ahead of the public’s agenda.

After that came Gannon #2, batty Sarah McClendon, once the classic poster girl for the loose credentialing process at the White House. Reporters laughed when Clinton went beyond the front row to pick her as she yelled to get his attention. Standing to show her snappy navy-blue beret, McClendon asked: “Sir, will you tell us why you think the people have been so mean to you? Is it a conspiracy? Is it a plan to treat you worse than they treated Abe Lincoln?” That allowed Clinton to make jokes. I don’t remember the Columbia Journalism Review huffing that she “had to go” and her hard pass should be revoked.

Then, the seventh reporter called on, ABC’s Sam Donaldson, finally asked about Broaddrick’s charge of rape, which Clinton circumnavigated and declined to deny. Donaldson followed up: “Can you not simply deny it, sir?” Clinton insisted: “There’s been a–a statement made by my–my attorney. He speaks for me, and I think he spoke quite clearly. Go ahead, Scott.” Scott Pelley of CBS changed the subject back to Kosovo. Using the usual liberal complaint that a Gannon lets down the public when he fails to follow up on a tough question that has not been answered, Pelley and everyone after him failed that test on that day in 1999.

After Pelley came Gannon #3, John F. (for Fawning?) Harris of the Washington Post: “Sir, George Stephanopoulos has written a book that contain–contains some tough and fairly personal criticism of you. Earlier, Dick Morris had written a somewhat similar book. How much pain do these judgments by former aides cause you? And do you consider it a betrayal for people to write books on the history of your administration while you’re still in office?” See how these reporters feel Clinton’s pain? Tightening the press credentials won’t solve the problem of long-established media outlets acting like tender psychoanalysts for liberal presidents.

Then came Gannon #4, Kenneth Walsh of U.S. News & World Report, who followed up on Clinton’s feelings and reflections on his pain: “I understand that you don’t want to speculate about what your opponents might do now, after the impeachment struggle is over, but I wonder what your feelings are, after some period of reflection, on the impeachment process, the–how you were treated and if you feel resentment, relief, and how you think people will deal with this and see it 10 or 20 years from now?” To Walsh, the only question was about Clinton’s opponents and whether the president resented them. He couldn’t even ask whether Clinton considered his presidency or his legacy irreparably damaged by the impeachment.

Gannon #5 was National Public Radio’s Mara Liasson: “Mr. President, your vice president has recently been ridiculed for claiming that he invented the Internet and spent his boyhood plowing steep hillsides in Tennessee. I’m wondering what you think of those claims and what advice you’d give him about how to brag on himself without getting in so much trouble.” This allowed Clinton to say with a smile: “Well, you know, he came a lot closer to inventing the Internet than I did.” He then went into an extended defense of Al Gore’s genuineness.

That’s just one press conference. We could lengthen this sorry list considerably with other examples on other dates. But by the current standards of liberal media critics, at the very least CNN, the Washington Post, U.S. News, and NPR didn’t have “actual journalists” at the White House. The man named “Gannon” is an embarrassment, but that’s no reason to shut out opinion journalists–conservative journalists (even partisans) have every bit as much right to sit in those chairs and ask their own questions as the everyday liberal partisans do.

Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.

Tim GrahamTim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, where he began in 1989, and has served there with the exception of 2001 and 2002, when served ...

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