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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 March 2005, 17:02 GMT
Is the US media too political?

By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC Washington correspondent

President Bush calls on a member of the media
Bloggers asked why a reporter with Republican ties was allowed to question Mr Bush

The American media are well known for having journalists who are open about their political allegiance.

But recent cases have opened the debate on whether partisanship in the media is going too far.

The Bush administration has already come under fire for paying commentators to espouse its views.

And now journalists themselves are questioning whether their profession is being undermined.

Sex, lies and the press corps

One of the battles began when bloggers went after a conservative journalist for lobbing what they thought was a soft and leading question to President Bush during a press conference.

"Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the US economy," said Jeff Gannon, correspondent for the web-based Talon News.

"How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" he asked President Bush.

What began as an innocuous question at a presidential news conference ended with a journalist nailing his political colours to the mast.
Jeff Gannon/James Guckert
The scrutiny forced Mr Gannon to resign from his job

And soon there were more revelations.

It emerged that Jeff Gannon, the reporter with the forthright views who had been a regular of the White House press corps, was in fact called James Guckert and worked not for the established media but for a partisan website staffed mainly by republican activists.

There have since been allegations linking him to a gay pornographic website.

But it was not a crack investigative team at the Washington Post or CBS's 60 Minutes that uncovered the dirt but rather left-leaning bloggers who thought Mr Guckert was helping Mr Bush get away from answering hard questions.

"Not only does Gannon toss softballs, but he serves the purpose of changing the course of questioning when things get too hot for Bush," said blogger Mark Maynard.

And the blogger Daily Kos rallied his readers to fan out and dig into Mr Guckert's past.

According to Matthew Cooper, the White House correspondent for Time Magazine, Washington has been lapping up this case of sex and subterfuge in the city.

"It's got everything that gets gossip going. It's got sex, it's got national security, how did he get so close to the president? The pseudonym, it's got intrigue, so it's the kind of thing that gets people talking," Mr Cooper said.

Paying for pundits

And what was the hard line of questioning that Mr Gannon/Guckert helped Mr Bush escape?

They were already talking about things being not quite as they seem in the media. Rewind that presidential news conference for a minute or so and you'll find this exchange.

"President, do you think it's a proper use of government funds to pay commentators to promote your policies," asked one of the members of the White House press corps.

The question referred to the case of Armstrong Williams, a conservative media commentator whose public relations company has been paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to promote its "No Child Left Behind" education reform.

President Bush has denied all knowledge of the arrangement.

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams
Are you assuming that conservatives are the only ones involved in these type of situations?
Armstrong Williams, conservative commentator
Mr Williams believes that he and his views are being unfairly singled out.

"Are you assuming that conservatives the only ones involved in these type of situations?" Mr Williams said.

"Obviously I think there are people who are still chewing their tongue and biting their lip over the fact that Bush won in 2004, and they want to do anything they can to embarrass the president and this administration," he added.

He thinks the controversy has less to do with him and more to do with Democrats' anger with Mr Bush.

"But had he done anything wrong?" I asked him

Yes, he admitted, he had overstepped the mark, but in the American media that mark is often blurred.

"I did not disclose to the Tribune media, the syndicate of my column, that 'No Child Left Behind' through the department of education was a paid advertiser. But it was clearly disclosed on radio and television," Mr Williams said.

"But if I had to do it all over again I wouldn't because the lines are too blurred and I will always weigh on the side of the integrity of the institution of journalism," he added.

The people's (mis)trust

So what sort of effect are these scandals having on the perception on the mainstream media here? Time White House correspondent Matthew Cooper fears a negative one.

"I am concerned that the public may start to wonder: 'Well what is a journalist and isn't it all kind of a scam somewhere on the payroll, some seem to work for partisan organisations.'

"I fear they may question all of journalism, it's kind of a con game and a sham and that would be unfortunate," Mr Cooper said.

But is he being too pessimistic? To find out I spoke to commuters at Union Station just across the road from Armstrong Williams's office.

One man said: "I'm from Ohio so I go back and when I listen to people, the blue collar type person, they take it for the gospel and so that is sad because they're trusting the media to give them the straight answer and then they just say well the media said it, it's got to be true and that's not necessarily the case."

Another woman said: "By and large we all trust the media. The media is our voice between the White House and the rest of the people in the country."

But was she ever concerned that she wasn't getting an objective view?

"No, I think we receive an objective view most of the time," she said.

And for those who do not agree with her, there is always the new media of blogs and websites.

After all the fake White House reporter was rumbled not by the mainstream press but by bloggers.

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27 Sep 04 |  Americas

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