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August 22, 2006

A woman for the ages: Helen Thomas chronicles the decline of American Media

Helen Thomas’ latest book: “Watchdogs of Democracy?” is a searing condemnation of how the mainstream media rolled over on the Bush administration’s dumb logic during the run-up to the Iraq War and, as such, allowed the war hawks to railroad a war under utterly false, damaged pretenShortly before his death, when his writing was most grim and full of despair, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson began to focus on what he called the “Downward Spiral of Dumbness,” that irreversible holding pattern America descended into when it (sort of) elected George W. Bush and traded its broader sense of discernment for randomized saber-rattling and a pack of wild lies that has made extreme fear and paranoia seem like responsible life choices. Thompson feared for his country.     It is in this way that Helen Thomas fears for hers. The legendary journalist and White House correspondent, who worked since the Kennedy administration for United Press International wire service, is and always has been a firebrand, the most appealing of outlaws, the one who asks the nasty questions that tear off the emperor’s clothes. She’s always been gutsy, mostly because she knew she had to be: They’ll walk right over you if you’re not.     That’s the lesson of Thomas’s latest book, the masterfully critical Watchdogs of Democracy?. It’s a searing condemnation of how the mainstream media rolled over on the Bush administration’s dumb logic during the run-up to the Iraq War and, as such, allowed the warhawks to railroad a war under utterly false, damaged pretenses.     As a journalist, it’s pretty heady to discuss these things with someone like Thomas, who embodies the ideals of American journalism: a quest for truth under any circumstances. LEO: I want to start out at the beginning of your career. What was it like being an assertive woman in a totally male-dominated profession? Helen Thomas: I was never told, even though we had nine children in our family and my parents couldn’t read or write, I was born in Winchester, Kentucky; the thing is, we were never told it was a man’s world. And so all of us were given a college education. I certainly did not expect the kind of discrimination — but it was nothing compared to what blacks suffer or anything else like that — just the ordinary treatment of women who had never — there were lots of newspaper women, for 150 years, but not that many. Women doctors, women lawyers. But they were sort of in a way unique. What you had to do was simply fight. Struggle for equality. We’re still doing it. We don’t have true equality at the workplace yet. But we’ve come a long way, to coin a cliché. LEO: How has the job of the White House press corps changed over the past 40 years, 50 years? HT: What do you mean? LEO: What are some of the —HT: I think the whole electronic journalism has now dominated, of course: television, cable and so forth. Wire services, when I started out working at UPI, there was certainly no television in that respect, and certainly not 24 hours. TV was coming in in 1961 and so forth, but only for special stories. Now it blankets the White House. So they really, everything is on the visual side, and electronic journalism is prevailing over print. LEO: Do you think that’s given way to sloppier reporting? HT: Not sloppier, but you just get a soupcon. If you want to really find out what’s going on, read newspapers. They’re much more in-depth, they’re able to cover every angle, not just sound bites. Legendary journalist: and White House correspondent Helen Thomas worked since the Kennedy administration for United Press International wire service.LEO: You say in Watchdogs of Democracy?, right near the beginning, that ethics is the biggest problem facing journalism right now. Can you expound on that? HT: There have been so many pitfalls lately, in the last couple years, of fabrication of stories, being paid — government paying certain pundits to promote a certain program, I think the New York Times fell by the wayside by listening to Ahmed Chalabi, who definitely had an axe to grind, was head of the defectors, he was on the Pentagon payroll, and he was definitely creating a whole image of Iraq being armed with weapons of mass destruction, which was not true. And they were front-page stories every day. The New York Times now has apologized twice in editorials and so forth, but the damage is done. LEO: I want to talk about that a little bit. You write about how the New York Times and Washington Post — HT: Well, the Post has never done a mea culpa. They wrote 40 editorials — we’ve got to go to war, got to go to war, got to go to war. LEO: Forty? Wow. HT: At least. You know, Saddam Hussein, we have to regime change. I just don’t think that, I mean, if you’re willing to go to war, I want to say to all of them: Are you enlisting? LEO: Do you think it’s a failure to ask the proper questions? HT: Absolutely. I do make the point, maybe it could be far-fetched, but I don’t think so. I think we are the last stronghold of alerting the administration as to what’s going on, and why we are skeptics and why we are doubting. And when we give up our one weapon, skepticism; everything this administration said has proved to be untrue. That’s our fault. We should have found out. Certainly Congress, too. We should’ve questioned more closely, said give us the proof of weapons, give us the proof of ties to Al Qaeda, and so forth. No, 9/11 really subdued everyone, frightened them, the “fear card,” you didn’t want to be called unpatriotic. I think that’s the dilemma of every reporter and lawmaker, you had to accept what the administration said. It just happened to be not so. LEO: You clearly tried to work against that. HT: Every inch of the way. LEO: Even from right in the beginning [post-9/11]. HT: Absolutely. I said, Why? The one question: Prove it. Why do you want to go in and start a war to get one man? LEO: You write about how people like Sam Donaldson used to follow up some of your tougher questions. HT: That’s right. I had some backup. LEO: And that’s not there anymore? HT: It wasn’t, no. Now, I think, they’re coming out of their coma. It was Legendary journalist: and White House correspondent Helen Thomas worked since the Kennedy administration for United Press International wire service. Katrina that woke them up. They began to realize they should be asking questions, should be challenging the government. That’s our job.LEO: What was the resultant loss for the American people when major media doesn’t ask the right questions? HT: The Iraqi war and everything else. If you don’t question policy — it’s one thing, you have to have a certain amount of courage and chutzpah and you have to be able to stand up, and you always hope your agency or newspaper will back you up to ask the right questions. It can be very polite and so forth, but they should be asked. LEO: Is that another thing happening now, not only are journalists not asking the questions but they’re not getting the backing from their news outlets? HT: I do think that everybody falls into the same syndrome of patriotism, you’re un-American if you ask certain questions, you’re unpatriotic, it’s kind of an atmospheric thing. I do think the news agencies also could’ve done more. It’s shocking, it’s shocking how much proved to be not so, falsehoods. LEO: And people seem to lack outrage, even now, finding out. HT: That’s one of the most disappointing things, the passivity. When you go through the Vietnam Era and you realize that everybody was on the street demanding the answers and demanding to get out of an unwinnable war, and what are we doing there 10,000 miles away, killing people and being killed, what is this? The Sixties were the most fascinating era. People reacted — they were much more human. LEO: People say to me a lot of times when I talk about this administration or this war or these sort of things we’re talking about now, they say it’ll tip back, the pendulum swings and what-not. In your experience, is this further than it’s gone? HT: It is. I’ve never seen a more myopic approach to major problems, but I do think it will swing back, because I do think people are going to wake up. They have to. We’re in the depths now. Our image around the world is unbelievable: Torture? We’re identified with torture? LEO: I'm curious about the adjustment you made a few years ago moving from hard news reporter to columnist. It seems like — judging by the nature of your commentary now — you were about to burst.  HT: I’ve had an opinion on everything since the day I was born. LEO: Did you find it difficult to suppress that for so many years? Do you feel like you suppressed it? HT: I think I did. I was able to write for a wire service and I was never accused of injecting my own opinion or slant, but everybody knew — and I didn’t bow out of the human race. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe, but it didn’t get into my copy. LEO: There’s a lot of talk in journalism now centered on the idea of objectivity. I write for an alternative newsweekly, and we don't purport to be objective so much as fair and diligent in our reporting, but sometimes there’s an aspect of advocacy involved. This kind of journalism is gaining a wider audience, too. I’m wondering, having done both — now you’re taking a very clear position in your writing. HT: I think there’s room for both. I think you should clearly mark something as an opinion column, you know. I think that people are best served when they get an objective story. My opinion doesn’t mean anything, but laying out the facts, presenting them very fairly, giving the reader the chance to make a decision is much better. At the same time, I think it’s good that they also know that there are opinions around and they can, you know, for what they’re worth, that’s all. There’s room for both, but I think on the front page there ought to be straight news. LEO: I’m curious, after you write a book like this, what the reaction is among your colleagues. HT: The Washington Post trashed it. They went through transcripts from past briefings and said, “See. These are tough questions.” Well, they may think they’re tough, but I don’t. I think you just lay it on the line, you ask the president, “Why do you want to go to war?” Give us the proof. And I did ask him that. Can you believe, to be in a war three-and-a-half years, and you have a president who cannot explain why. He has never given a definitive answer, and I think it’s because the answer’s not acceptable. LEO: How much time have you gotten to spend talking with George W. Bush? HT: I haven’t had any interviews with him. LEO: None directly? HT: No. I haven’t asked for one. LEO: What about other presidents you’ve covered. How is this administration different? HT: On the question of the Middle East: Most every president I have covered has tilted toward Israel, but at the same time, they’ve all gone for a cease-fire. Stop the killing, start talking. Stop the war. But President Bush did not. He let it go on and on, did not go for an immediate truce. Other presidents would go for a truce, no matter what side they’re on. Who started what? Hezbollah did start this war, that’s true. But I still think he could’ve asked for, you know, let’s stop the shooting. LEO: You have to rise above, right? HT: Yeah. Don’t destroy all of Lebanon. Now the irony is we’re sending humanitarian aid — you can’t bring people back, though, who are dead. LEO: Which presidents got your sympathy and which get your praise? HT: Kennedy was my favorite on all scores. Johnson was great on domestic affairs; Vietnam was his denouement. I think that Carter did a good job in putting human rights as a centerpiece of our foreign policy. Many good things have been done. I just think that, once you get to be president you’ve reached the top of the mark, and you should only want to do the right thing, and bring honor to our country. LEO: A lot of people say that the Bush administration has destroyed a lot of the honor of the office — HT: Wiretapping, surveillance of ordinary Americans, torture, people keeping people in prison for three and four years without charging, trying or convicting them, sending them to secret prisons — that’s not us. Surely not. LEO: So where do we go from here?HT: Well, we have to return to what a real democracy is, return to enforcement of the Bill of Rights, enforcement of the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment against unwarranted searches, and so forth. It’s simple. Go back to the law. Presidents are not above the law. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com