Grigori Potemkin was an 18th century Russian general who is said to have built sham villages to impress Catherine the Great with his administration's good work. In an America hypnotized by Faux - sorry, Fox - News, President Bush and his Svengali, Karl Rove, have proven how easy the trick is.
After a campaign marked by rallies where right-wing credentials were the price of admission, they now want you to believe that a "reporter" for a Web site run by Republican political operatives wasn't given preferential access to the White House.
In George Bush's Potemkin America, we now have a Potemkin reporter.
Until a week ago Jeff Gannon - an assumed name for the real James D. Guckert - worked for TalonNews.com, owned by Texas Republican party activist Bobby Eberle. Talon, whose staff is composed largely of party activists with no journalism experience, doesn't pretend to objectivity. For that reason, JG, as he has become known, was repeatedly denied a congressional press pass, normally a prerequisite for a "hard" pass to the White House.
But for two years "Jeff Gannon" was somehow granted successive day-pass access to briefings and press conferences - the only "reporter" to get such special treatment. Day passes are normally reserved for out of town journalists through an application process that bypasses the extensive security checks required for a hard pass. (JG says he adopted the pseudonym because it's easier to pronounce. I guess "James" is a little tricky.)
JG routinely lobbed softball questions to White House press secretary Scott McClellan and President Bush. During the president's Jan. 26 news conference he posed an egregiously loaded one: How did the president plan to work with Democrats who had obviously "divorced themselves from reality"? Bloggers took note, and soon uncovered the partisan connections that had been willfully ignored by White House reporters.
The incident was not without irony. Prior to JG's question, Bush had made a rare admission of error. In the wake of the scandal of Armstrong Williams, the black conservative commentator who kept secret his payments from the administration to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush promised to end the practice of paying journalists to shill for administration policies.
"Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet," he said.
Then he stumbled on a shill.
McClellan was vague about how long he has known about JG's pseudonym and connections. But he strenuously denied that JG was a plant and insisted that at the time of the press conference Bush didn't know who JG was. For many reporters, accustomed to this administration's rigid choreographing of the news, the denials didn't pass the duck test.
But what really got the bloggers' attention was JG's ownership of three Web sites: hotmilitarystud.com, militaryescorts.com, and militaryescortsm4m.com - particularly in light of his contributions to Talon News' frequent anti-gay articles. During the presidential campaign, JG once called John Kerry "a coddler of gays."
JG admitted to registering the sites for clients but said they were never launched. He has yet to respond to another blogger discovery: an AOL screen profile for a "JDG," since removed, containing a provocative photo of a shirtless man with dog tags draped around his neck. The man bears a strong resemblance to Gannon/Guckert.
In the face of these revelations, JG played his get-out-of-hell-free card. National Public Radio's David Folkenflik reported that JG told him his "Christian faith has enabled him to receive forgiveness for the sins of his past."
This makes the fourth revelation of media manipulation in barely a month. Besides Armstrong Williams, conservative columnists Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus also received previously undisclosed payments to promote administration policies.
"In this day and age," said McClellan about JG, "when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist." Imagine. The White House press secretary doesn't know what a real journalist is. Perhaps he also agrees with the 36 percent of American teenagers who think the government should pre-approve news stories.
Complain all you want about the alleged political leanings of the press, the White House press room is supposed to be where tough questions are asked and straight answers demanded.
The Declaration of Independence was unafraid to "submit facts to a candid world." What is this government, this 21st century George, afraid of?
John Yewell is a regular contributor to these pages. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.