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Jeff vs. the
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Jeff vs. the
bloggers

Gannon

Ex-White House reporter Jeff Gannon learned the power of gay bloggers the hard way, by being outed as a partisan operative and an alleged former hustler. Online activists have mainstream media playing catch-up, and they're reshaping the battle for gay equality.

On most mornings, over a cup of coffee, John Aravosis sits alone in his studio apartment in Washington, D.C., pushing through piles of computer printouts. He scans new e-mails from around the world, searching for content for his www.americablog.org, a blog, or Web log, that mixes commentary and news. Information comes from everywhere--influential newspapers, cable news, other blogs, average people. On one particular April morning the top headline comes from "Chris, in Paris," who is reporting that a new Iraqi president has been appointed. Another headline reads that conservative congressman Tom DeLay's approval rating is heading into the toilet, according to a survey conducted by the Houston Chronicle. Aravosis, 41, is a pioneer among the media-savvy gays and lesbians devoted to the country's blogs. In February he bolstered his reputation as a gay advocate by helping blow the cover of one Jeff Gannon, who had come under fire for his partisan questions as a reporter in the White House briefing room. Media outlets discovered that Gannon was actually James Guckert, who had been hired to write for a Web site run by a wealthy Republican activist from Texas. And if that wasn't enough, Aravosis also soon learned that Guckert had apparently advertised himself as a male escort. The partisan connection was embarrassing enough. The White House press room might have a history of opinionated reporters, but rarely did one represent such a blatantly partisan organization. It was especially embarrassing to the Bush administration, whose various agencies had been revealed as paying commentators and journalists to promote Bush programs, such as encouragement of straight marriage and the controversial "No Child Left Behind" education act. But while the mainstream media dutifully reported and discussed each of the paid-pundit revelations, few outlets were willing to talk about Gannon's apparent moonlighting as a $200-an-hour escort through Web sites such as HotMilitaryStud.com and MaleCorps.com. With the help of HotMilitaryStud.com's original designer, Paul Leddy, Aravosis posted on his blog the invoices for Gannon's services. "For the Gannongate story, I just really got the discussion going," Aravosis says. "We finally were asking the question, Should we be coddling a gay hooker who is working just steps away from the Oval Office promoting an antigay agenda?" Gannon denied the characterization of himself as a gay prostitute in a interview with The Advocate conducted via e-mail. "There is much misinformation and exaggeration about my past," he wrote. "What is most interesting about it is that the people who talk about it the most in very graphic and disparaging terms are the ones who probably see nothing wrong with it." Gannon, 48, adds that his sexual orientation is a private matter and that he objects to being "called a fake, phony, and faux or that 'he was posing as a journalist.' I was and still am a legitimate journalist, and I did some solid reporting." The fact that Gannon has lost his White House access has not stopped him from writing. He has his own blog at JeffGannon.com, with political views that are the polar opposite of Aravosis's. He rips apart Democratic leaders as well as "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau for making light of Gannongate. Gannon's site features the tagline "So feared by the left, it had to take me down." In size and scope, blogs are low-budget, one-person operations that could not be more different from the country's newsrooms. There is no editorial layer--no reporters, editors, copy editors, or producers constantly verifying and tweaking what is reported before it is ever seen by the public. There is no call to be objective and strike a balance in stories. Instead, blogs from Aravosis and Gannon are a blend of journalism and activism with a political bent. Can it be called journalism? "If a blog looks like journalism, it feels like journalism, if it smells like journalism--it is," says Bob Steele, a media ethicist with the Poynter Institute and coauthor of a recent paper on blog ethics. Adds Eric Hegedus, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association: "When most people think of journalism, they most likely think of what they read that is mainstream media, but that's not always the case anymore. A lot of people have questions about blogs, sure, but they may indeed be changing the face of modern journalism. What they write may even break news." Aravosis and fellow gay bloggers such as Michael Rogers are becoming the most powerful of voices for gay men and lesbians to surface in years--without using the traditional tools of political activism. While in their living rooms, gay bloggers are amassing valuable political information and unleashing it to a vast online readership. And, if they're lucky, shaming their enemies into doing right by gay people. Aravosis and Rogers share an incredible political track record that has helped their work stand out from the 8 million or so blogs now available online. In just one year--in addition to unmasking Gannon--they've helped oust a conservative U.S. representative and exposed the hypocrisy of more than a dozen gay policy makers who earn their living promoting antigay causes or working for antigay elected officials. Their success regularly makes headlines at traditional media outlets like Newsweek, The New York Times, and CNN, in addition to having earned the respect of political pundits worldwide. Aravosis and Rogers share similar goals with traditional activists. But to witness how powerful their tactics are, merely mention their names in D.C.-area gay bars and watch the closeted conservatives scatter. "I'm told some people on the Hill are afraid to go to gay bars and introduce themselves using their real name for fear their name will end up in my e-mail box," says Rogers. "If only they knew gay bars are really the one safe place for them. I hate going to bars." Rogers runs BlogActive.com and RawStoryQ.com. He's a 41-year-old D.C.-area blogger whose controversial outing campaign has exposed more than 20 gays who work for conservative causes and politicians. He got his start working on gay issues in a more traditional arena, as a successful marketing consultant and fund-raiser for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, GALA Choruses, and the Funding Exchange. Before that, after coming out in 1986, he cut his headline-grabbing teeth as a member of ACT UP. Rogers embarked on his latest political journey sitting at the keyboard of his old Dell computer last June. That's when Senate majority leader Bill Frist scheduled a vote on the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment just two weeks before the Democratic National Convention. Rogers got mad and assembled fliers that were handed out at D.C.'s gay pride celebration. With the demand do not protect homophobes and the people who keep them in power, the fliers encouraged people to e-mail Rogers the names of closeted conservatives. His in-box was immediately flooded. Rogers's biggest coup came from an anonymous source who sent taped audio messages from the MegaMates personals phone line, allegedly recorded by conservative Republican U.S. representative Ed Schrock of Virginia, in which the caller solicited casual gay sex from men. Schrock, an active Baptist who is married to a retired schoolteacher, was no friend to gays. He earned a zero from gay rights group Human Rights Campaign for his support of antigay legislation, while the Christian Coalition gave him a 92% approval rating. A vocal opponent of "don't ask, don't tell" from a military-dominated district, he was happy to explain to his hometown Virginia Beach newspaper why he wanted the military kept a gay-free zone. But Schrock apparently ran seven personal ads on MegaMates/MegaPhone Line: "I weigh 200 pounds...very buffed-up, uh, very tanned...I'd like him to be in very good shape...well-hung, cut...nothing real heavy-duty...[I can] go down on him, he can go down on me." After Rogers verified the story to his satisfaction and posted the audio file on his blog, Schrock backed out of his reelection race. In a press release he said, "After much thought and prayer, I have come to the realization that these allegations will not allow my campaign to focus on the real issues facing our nation and region." No other outed public figures have quit because of Rogers's blog, but they've certainly felt the heat. So has Rogers--from gay rights groups including HRC and the Log Cabin Republicans, for outing congressional staffers who are not elected public officials. But in spite of the negative reaction, Rogers says some of his best sources are people at D.C.'s leading gay groups. "I do my homework; I make the calls; I have several sources. I verify facts," he says. "[I'm not] some wacko activist trying to destroy lives here. I'm doing this for the kids 189 years from now who could inherit a Constitution amended to include this kind of hate. I'm doing this for a kid I once saw who had the word fag burned into his flesh because a group hated him that much. No one should work for people who create an environment that allows this kind of stuff to happen." Aravosis says he thinks a lot about the consequences of what he's doing and that so far he is happy with the political fallout. He ran an ad in the Washington Blade as a "final call to conscience." It implored lawmakers and their staff members, "If you are gay, end your silence. Stop aiding and abetting those who would make us second-class citizens.... For years our silence has protected you. Today that protection ends." Like Rogers, Aravosis gained his political knowledge in a more traditional arena. After graduating with a master's in foreign service and a law degree from Georgetown, he went to work for a Republican, U.S. senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. But a gay friend's death from AIDS complications really "turned my head around," he says, and "after I came to terms with being gay I switched to the other side politically. I can't really make excuses for gay Republicans." When he left Stevens's office he worked for the World Bank and the Children's Defense Fund, where by 1995 he had discovered the power of connecting people online: "It was a great lesson for me. You could reach people all over in such a quick amount of time and call them to action." He says he offered to do the same kind of work volunteering at the HRC, but at the time "they didn't really have an outlet for my talents." So he went off on his own, launching a consulting company, Wired Strategies, and putting together several Web sites and blogs. His first big success was StopDrLaura.com, which contributed to a barrage of negative publicity directed at Paramount Television and corporate parent Viacom regarding the company's launch of the homophobic Dr. Laura Schlessinger's syndicated television show. Viacom received more than 17,000 e-mails, faxes, and phone calls of complaint; the show tanked in the ratings, and it was canceled after one season. A protest he launched against AOL--after the e-mail service outed Navy senior chief petty officer Timothy R. McVeigh to the military--landed him on ABC's World News Tonight. "Literally, that was the first week [of the protest], and it was my first TV interview ever," he says. "My traditional political work didn't get attention like this. Right then I really realized just how powerful my work on behalf of the community could be using these online tools." He says was inspired to start AmericaBlog.com after reaching "a boiling point with President Bush early last year," when Bush announced his support for writing antigay discrimination into the U.S. Constitution. The blog's mission, he adds, is to "fight back against his lies. Not just on gay issues, but his lies about the war in Iraq and more." Bloggers--even gay bloggers--are not uniformly anti-Bush, however. Jeff Gannon, for one, passionately supports the president's policies, which is why he was proud to spend two years in the White House briefing room, spinning supportive questions toward the podium. It was a long way to come for a boy from western Pennsylvania who grew up in a "rural traditional family." James Dale Guckert graduated from Conneaut Lake High School in 1975 and went on to get a degree in education from West Chester University of Pennsylvania in 1980--he planned to be a social studies teacher. But he became interested in journalism at a young age, he says, and was both an editor and writer for his high school and college newspapers. His path from Pennsylvania student to Pennsylvania Avenue is still murky, and Guckert--now 48 and still using the name Jeff Gannon, under which he got daily press passes to the White House for two years--is protective of his personal life. But his emergence into the national limelight came earlier this year when, referring to Democratic U.S. senators Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid during a presidential news conference, he asked Bush, "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" Liberal bloggers soon found that Gannon's request for a press pass to cover Congress had been turned down, and that his writing often matched Republican National Committee press releases verbatim. No formal ties between Gannon and the Administration have been uncovered, and the man himself explains that he wrote conservative op-eds before landing his reporting gig: "I had been writing opinion pieces for a year before I joined the news division that GOPUSA later renamed Talon News," he wrote to The Advocate. "I have no [current] association with Talon News [or] GOPUSA, but I am grateful for the opportunity I was given and sorry about what happened." Aravosis says simply that Gannon was a "fraud" who deserved to be exposed. "These kinds of things do take on a life of their own, particularly when you go public with them," he says. "But you have to share this information--it's really the only way to shame these people into doing what is right." Asked about the ethics of outing people, he adds, "I don't jump up and down and say 'Yeah!' when I learn these things about people. I still feel guilty--particularly since some of them clearly have a lot of issues. But I asked my mom about it. I told her I worried about what my information could do to people, and she said, 'Do you really think someone like Dr. Laura is asking if the hateful things she's saying against gay people are going to hurt my John? Of course not.' You are not really being nasty if you have a higher purpose of exposing people for who they really are."

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