The Trump administration’s reported proposal to move the White House press briefing to a large room that can accommodate pro-Trump sycophants and propagandists is brazen and destructive. But it’s also not entirely new -- the Bush administration adopted a similar strategy in 2004, granting press briefing access to a shill working for a right-wing outlet who they could rely on for softball questions.
That shill’s name was Jeff Gannon. Actually, that shill’s name was James Guckert. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Gannon parlayed a two-day, $50 broadcast journalism workshop at the right-wing Leadership Institute into a job reporting from the White House briefing room for Talon News. Talon News was a shell organization run by a GOP political operative that used articles written by right-wing activists to drive traffic to another conservative website run by the operative.
Thanks to the access the White House press office provided, Gannon had a platform to draw plaudits from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, get his work published by the American Enterprise Institute, and even attend White House Christmas parties.
The White House got something in return: Gannon became the lifeline for Bush’s press secretary at the time, Scott McClellan.
Here’s how it would work: Other journalists would be grilling McClellan over the Bush administration’s activities. McClellan would call on Gannon for a question. And Gannon would bail McClellan out, frequently with a leading question ladened with false assumptions.
In August 2004, for example, after taking several questions from a reporter about whether American forces had killed any innocent people in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and another seeking President Bush’s opinion of the disgraced Ahmad Chalabi, McClellen turned to Gannon. And Gannon came through: He asked McClellan about a new “piece of evidence showing the direct terror ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda” and followed up by asking “how damaging” a New York Times story had been “to our war on terror.”
In June 2004, McClellan escaped from a series of tough questions about Bush’s foreign policy record by calling on Gannon, who offered up the following question: “Why hasn't the administration made more of the U.N. inspectors' report that says Saddam Hussein was dismantling his missile and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] sites before and during the war? And doesn't that, combined with the now-proven Al Qaeda link between Iraq -- between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization -- unequivocally make the case for going to war in Iraq?”
Gannon even got to ask a question at Bush’s January 26, 2005, White House press conference. He used that opportunity to inquire how the president would be able to “work with” Democratic leaders given that they had, in Gannon’s words, “divorced themselves from reality.”
But that appearance was the beginning of the end for Gannon. He drew tremendous scrutiny from Media Matters and others, and with his schtick (and the fact that “Jeff Gannon” was a pseudonym) exposed, he was forced to resign within two weeks.
Thirteen years later, the landscape has shifted. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer is openly discussing moving the press briefings to a larger space in order to accommodate “talk radio, bloggers and others.” While the White House Correspondents Association currently determines who gets the 49 seats in the briefing room, the White House Press Office handles credentialing and distributes daily press passes, giving Spicer significant control over the composition of the press room.
In practice, that means that Spicer could have a sea of Jeff Gannons on which to rely -- “reporters” from openly pro-Trump propaganda outlets who will side with the president over their colleagues in the press.
If ABC News gives him trouble during the briefing, he could turn to the reporter from Breitbart.com. When The Washington Post tries to pin him down, he could retreat to the representative from Right Side Broadcasting Network. If The Associated Press and CNN and NBC News are all pressing him for answers, he could take questions from Laura Ingraham’s LifeZette or One America News Network or Infowars to stall.
We could even see our first all-shill press briefing, with reporters from mainstream outlets entirely shut out while Spicer calls on the sycophants.
Meanwhile, Trump is warning that there will be repercussions for the press if they fight back against the move, suggesting that his administration will use the limited space in the current briefing room as an excuse to deny access to credible news outlets and grant it to more supportive ones. “There’s too many people for this small room,” he said this morning during an interview on Fox & Friends. “We have so many people that want to go, so we'll have to just pick the people that go into the room.” He added that if that happens, the press will “be begging for a much larger room very soon. You watch.”
Trump has already deployed the Gannon strategy as president-elect. During his press conference last week, he pivoted away from a series of questions about the intelligence community’s fears about his interactions with Russia to take one from Matt Boyle from Breitbart, the conservative website previously run by his chief strategist and that spent the election pushing his candidacy. Boyle’s softball sought Trump’s opinion of what “reforms” the media industry should undertake to avoid the “problems” of its election coverage. We should expect Trump to continue to use his platform to lift up such supportive outlets.
It gets worse. Gannon was forced out because he and his outlet could not withstand the light of scrutiny, and because he was an outlier in a press corps that made his continued presence untenable. Once it became clear that he was acting as the press secretary’s safety net, it was no longer a plausible strategy for him to do so.
Those inhibiting factors no longer hold true under a Trump administration. The sheer number of pro-Trump shilling operations means that the Gannon strategy will be extremely difficult to sequester and stop. And neither Trump nor those outlets have enough shame to care how obvious the practice will be.