White House Correspondents Criticize Alleged ‘Softball Thrower’ — and Jeff Gannon Fires Back

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By: Joe Strupp

Who is Jeff Gannon, why are some White House reporters saying terrible things about him, and why did the group that handles credentials for Capitol Hill correspondents turn down his request last summer, as E&P has learned?

Gannon, the White House correspondent for Talon News, a pro-conservative Web site linked to GOPUSA.com, has drawn attention recently among those who cover the president for what many consider to be an especially partisan approach. He is known for inserting blatantly pro-Bush statements in his inquiries at televised press briefings.

“Would they let Joe Lockhart or someone who works for the DNC [Democratic National Committee] come in and do that? I don’t think so,” Edwin Chen, who has covered the president for the Los Angeles Times, told E&P. “They ought to get legitimate members of the fourth estate, not political hacks on either side.”

White House reporters say Gannon has regularly attended daily press briefings for more than a year. Then, during President Bush’s televised press conference on Jan. 26, the president called on him for a question, bypassing dozens of far more experienced reporters.

“I think Jeff’s questions suggest he has a pretty strong partisan bent that is at odds with the mission of White House correspondents who go to those meetings on behalf of the public,” said Bob Deans, who has covered the White House for seven years for Cox Newspapers. “That is not the point of White House briefings.”

GOPUSA.com and TalonNews.com both have ties to the Texas Republican Party, according to a report today in The Boston Globe. Gannon “has virtually no journalistic background … and routinely reprints long passages verbatim from official press releases as original news articles on his website,” the Globe charged.

His question to Bush at last week’s press conference: “Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. … Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. You’ve said you’re going to reach out to these people. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”

But Gannon told E&P this afternoon that he had no political affiliation and had never contributed to a political campaign. “Which is more than I can say for some of my colleagues,” he added.

He would not discuss Talon News’s ties to Republican groups. “I write a news story, I post it, and anything having to do with GOPUSA, I don’t know about.” Added Gannon, “I’m not the ’60 Minutes’ producer with the Kerry campaign on speed dial.”

Gannon would not reveal his age and was vague about his educational background. He said he had been writing for Talon News for two years.

Some veteran White House reporters said Gannon’s questions at press conferences show he is trying to make Bush look good — or providing a “life line” — instead of demanding answers. “I’ve heard people grumble about it,” said Terence Hunt, an Associated Press White House correspondent for 20 years.

Gannon’s credibility was first called into question last spring by The Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of congressional reporters who oversee press credential distribution on Capitol Hill. Julie Davis, a reporter at The Sun of Baltimore and a member of that committee, said Gannon approached the group in April 2004 seeking a Capitol Hill credential for Talon News, but he was refused.

“We asked for evidence that they were an independent news organization,” Davis told E&P. “That they were not connected to a political organization, and they could not provide that, so we denied them their credential.” She also said Talon News could not prove it carried paid advertising or paid circulation, two other criteria for approval.

Because Talon did not receive a congressional press credential, it was unable to obtain a White House “hard pass,” the permanent press credential that allows White House reporters regular access, Davis said. Instead, she said, Gannon has had to get a daily press credential, which is much easier to get but must be issued each day.

The White House Press Office has not responded to several requests for information on Gannon’s credential status or why he is given daily press passes.

When asked about being denied a Capitol Hill credential, Gannon told E&P, “I understand their criteria, and I can see where their questions weren’t fully answered. But I think their rules do not reflect the reality of a changing media.”

Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association, has covered the president for Knight Ridder since 2001. He also believes Gannon’s actions are a concern. “I see it as a problem,” he said. “It wastes a lot of time, and it is an abuse of the forum.”

At the White House, unlike on Capitol Hill, the Correspondents Association does not oversee credentialing. That has made the group reluctant to lodge any formal complaint with White House officials who hand out the press passes, Hutcheson said. “We don’t get into credentialing and we really don’t want to,” he added. “It is a judgment call. Just because [Gannon] comes in here with a different political view, is that wrong?”

Hutcheson pointed to Helen Thomas, the former UPI White House correspondent who now writes a column for Hearst Newspapers and still attends press briefings as sometimes doing the same thing from the left. “Her questions have changed since she switched from a reporter role to a columnist role,” he said. “Often all she is trying to do is make a political point.” But Thomas works for a major news operation with a wide and diverse audience.

Judy Keen, a USA Today White House reporter whose tenure dates back to the first President Bush, said Gannon was always cordial with her and may not be the only reporter with a political angle. “I do have some questions about whether he is a legitimate journalist,” she admitted. “But, if you start jerking people’s credentials based on who they work for, that is a dangerous road to go down. He is not the only one who occasionally includes a personal opinion.”

But Gannon’s actions have drawn an angry response from Media Matters For America, a Web site run by David Brock. On Monday, Brock posted a letter that he had apparently sent to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan urging that Gannon’s credentials be revoked. “Mr. Gannon’s conduct during your briefings, as well as presidential press conferences, further suggests that his true role is that of a partisan operative rather than an independent journalist,” Brock’s letter stated in part.

The Talon News reporter has also received criticism from several online watchdogs, including Dan Froomkin of The Washington Post’s Web site, who has called Gannon “the softball thrower of the White House briefing room.”

In his conversation with E&P today, Gannon admitted having a conservative viewpoint, but said most of the White House press corps “have liberal leanings that are reflected in their questions and their news stories. I don’t think anyone in that room is free of bias. They all reflect their own personal views or the editorial policy of the organizations they represent. I think I am no more or less partisan than any of my colleagues.”

“The story isn’t me, the story is that it doesn’t seem that there is room for a single conservative in the White House press corps,” he added.

Gannon believes many of the questions from White House reporters are unnecessarily hostile and picking on everything Bush says: “Every single word he says, they jump on and make it a headline.”

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