Wanna Be a White House NewsMan? Go GOP!
As the latest media scandal crackled and sizzled in Washington, D.C., last week, its ripple effects found their way to a tin shack on a dusty parking lot in Georgetown, the office of the Williamson Co. Republican Party. Bill Fairbrother, chairman of the local chapter of the GOP, is also on the board of directors of GOPUSA, the Houston-based Web and Republican recruitment and fundraising operation that spawned the now famous Talon News. Talon is the GOPUSA "news" link, devoted to covering news the good ol' Red, White, and Blue Way (and, if you're interested, a swell place to buy Ann Coulter's most recent book). "It's really amazing how stories like this get a life of their own," said Fairbrother, who helped start GOPUSA, which promotes itself under the catchy slogan, "Bringing the conservative message to America."
For those who forgot to TiVo last week's cable news shows, Talon News bubbled into sudden national prominence when fervent bloggers began noticing a bald, smirking reporter at White House press briefings asking questions only slightly tougher than, "Please explain how the president can be such a handsome man and still be such a strong leader?" The reporter was Talon's man in Washington, Jeff Gannon, who was even picked by the President to ask a slow-pitch question at a recent press conference, a rare blessing within the White House press room. But Web journalists revealed the direct ties between Talon and GOPUSA, and, as a bonus, that "Gannon" was a fake name for a "reporter" who might have business ties to various porn Web sites with names like WorkingBoys.net and MeetLocalMen.com.
As media firestorms go, this one was unusually entertaining. Off the top there was the revelation that a Bible-thumping patriot with ties to the Rush Limbaugh crowd might have ties to gay porn in all honesty, who could resist that? The Gannon tale also dovetails nicely with recent revelations that the administration has paid off political commentators, including Armstrong Williams, to pitch the Bush agenda.
GOPUSA and the 2-year-old Talon News are both owned by Bobby Eberle, an aerospace engineer turned GOP entrepreneur in Houston. Originally, GOPUSA was supposed to include a business to develop Web sites for Republican candidates and groups, according to Fairbrother. Since that business fizzled, Fairbrother says he's only been moderately involved in the enterprise. "Bobby's first love was the news and commentary" side of the operation, according to Fairbrother, who says he didn't follow the development of Talon closely and never met Gannon, whose real name is (apparently) James Guckert.
A panel of journalists, uncomfortable with the clear ties between the partisan GOPUSA and Talon, denied Gannon/Guckert a "hard pass" (permanent credentials) to Capitol Hill. But he was able to get a day pass from the White House press office (which apparently had no problem with the pseudonym), leaving the distinct impression that any old Joe Bob with a Web site could get a White House press pass, as long as his site displayed a red, white, and blue graphics scheme and a willingness to run White House press releases as "news." Monica Vigil-McDonald of the Legislature's communications office says Talon has never been issued a press pass for the Capitol, but adds that there is "no standing policy" on how to evaluate the credibility of Web-only news services.
Talon is "a news site, not a conservative news site" insisted GOPUSA spokeswoman Jennifer Ohman, who has found herself barraged by reporters and producers from around the country. "I was surprised more people didn't look at this and say it is nothing more than a partisan cat fight."
In the wake of the accusations, Gannon, self-proclaimed "voice of the new media," resigned from Talon and announced on his Web site that "in consideration of the welfare of me and my family I have decided to return to private life."