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  Getting Rid of the Wrong Person at CNN


Getting Rid of the Wrong Person at CNN

by Margie Burns

There is such a thing as “pitcher’s revenge.” It happens in baseball: when the opposing pitcher hits one of your batters with the ball, then your next pitcher gets to hit their batter. Anyone who thinks the same thing doesn’t happen in a combat zone is not qualified either for public office or for journalism.
This has been a bad week for the press, with some rather big media flameouts and several remarkable gaffes.

In the most spectacular example, a White House correspondent called on in press briefings turns out to have been using a nom de plume, “Jeff Gannon.” Under his real name, James D. Guckert, he solicited on the Internet as a gay escort for a fee. Web sites Guckert commissioned can be viewed online, but they are X-rated.

Guckert somehow was able to get White House press passes even though he had been turned down for Hill credentials; he asked loaded rightwing “questions” and was called on directly by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, by name, and by President Bush; and he was associated with an organization called the “Talon News Service,” which is connected with Bush campaign operatives in Texas rather than with a news company. Questions are still out about whether the White House knew his real name and background. In fact, the whole squalid episode raises security questions, including further questions about the ways this White House trafficks with attacks on homosexuality. Don’t they know that when they drive people into the closet, those individuals then can become blackmailable and otherwise pose additional security risks?

Yet somehow this guy was on apparently friendly terms with the White House Bush supporters nominally working for the taxpayers. For perspective on this kind of access: I called the White House press office one time to ask about who went with Bush on his quick six-nation trip to Asia. Although that trip was paid for by the taxpayers, I could not get an answer. In fact, the White House staffer who spoke with me was so rude and so self-important that I cannot remember a more ridiculous encounter since junior high school. Here’s the full narrative. In the second most ludicrous discovery, that Florida “good Samaritan” who said she saw a baby tossed out of a car window and rescued it--Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz called this a “feel-good story”--turned out to be the baby’s own mother. She made it up. Her newborn, fortunately in excellent condition, was never tossed from a moving car. Before she confessed the truth at the local sheriff’s office, however, the fabrication was carried on CNN and rocketed into newspapers across Florida and the nation, and then into 'devout religious' web sites.

There was a stupid race angle, of course. The emotionally troubled mother said she saw “the black male driver with an Afro hairstyle and white female passenger with braids arguing" and worse yet, in “an older model white car” like a Crown Victoria. Bingo! Don’t worry, folks. This is not a story--among thousands of examples--of mental illness or extreme difficulty. This is not a story of postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis, untreated. This is not about an American woman who had no insurance, no help and not even medical attention in one of the world’s richest nations. This is a story about--well, you know. Given the tender attentions of hundreds of rightwing ranters dominating our airwaves, you can easily supply the foul characterizations yourself, even if you were brought up better.

The allusion to the biracial couple (if they were a couple) may not have been harmless, either. She did see an actual couple, whom allegedly other “witnesses” also saw arguing. She just tweaked her observations a bit, tacking on the part about their throwing an infant of a moving car. And everyone in a responsible position at CNN apparently bought it. CNN included that description of the couple.

Speaking of CNN: for some reason, over the past few days CNN has run the same aerial photograph twice, first to illustrate what was said to be Iran’s nuclear plant site and then to illustrate was said to be North Korea’s nuclear plant site. Everyone is fallible, and CNN has acknowledged the error. However, the photograph is cropped and zoomed differently in the two versions. Editing was involved. CNN has not explained how the error occurred.

And now, on to the fourth instance of problems in big media--and the only one getting big attention as such by the rightwing-terrified establishment: Eason Jordan, a CNN news chief, resigned from CNN after his off-the-record speculations about the killings of journalists in Iraq were quoted publicly.

I personally am all over the map on this one. In my view:

  1. Off-the-record comments should be distrusted. It doesn’t make the speaker or the interlocutors more credible; it makes them less credible. The most significant remarks and information should be shared with the polity, not reserved for the less-than-qualified in some mediocre inner circle.

  2. That said, if Jordan was supposed to be given the privacy of off-the-record discourse, then those who made the agreement should have honored it.

  3. As a citizen, a journalist, and someone still capable of evaluating the invasion of another country justly, I still want to know more about the pursuit and death of Michael Kelly in Iraq. I disagreed with most of Kelly’s positions, but Kelly was the only good writer among those innumerable commentators who favored forcibly changing the regime in Iraq. He was also the only commentator supporting the invasion who went to Iraq with the troops, joining them in combat situations in person and placing his life on the line. You don’t see George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity or the host of others doing the same. (They’re mostly trying to make people forget about “weapons of mass destruction.”)

  4. It is not a given that Kelly was unknown in Iraq. He was killed in a wreck, on April 3, 2003, when his vehicle was pursued by assailants. They may have known who he was. The Pentagon has never addressed this question publicly, so far as I know.

  5. There is such a thing as “pitcher’s revenge.” It happens in baseball: when the opposing pitcher hits one of your batters with the ball, then your next pitcher gets to hit their batter. Anyone who thinks the same thing doesn’t happen in a combat zone is not qualified either for public office or for journalism.

  6. Well-regarded foreign press have documented that the Pentagon knew that the Baghdad hotel US troops fired on, on April 8, 2003, was occupied by journalists. Two journalists were killed and several others were injured in the attack on the hotel, which was home base for several hundred international reporters covering the war according to PBS. One of the fatalities was a Reuters cameraman, and Reuters Editor-in-Chief Geert Linnebank told the Associated Press that advancing US troops "have known all along that this hotel is the main base for almost all foreign journalists in Baghdad." Oddly, Time Magazine reported that the Iraqi government “minders” for journalists in the hotel left abruptly in the hours before the attack.
It is strange that information previously conveyed by PBS, the AP, Reuters and is now deemed something no one should say, even privately. Chalk it up to the Rupert Murdoch-ization of our news media that the public, which has a right to know how its military resources are being employed, is considered somehow not qualified to have this information.
Margie Burns, a freelance writer and college English instructor, lives in Cheverly, Md. She can be reached at

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This story was published on February 17, 2005.

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