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Helen Thomas: Two Views

July 23, 2013

As long as we have politics and pomposity we need the likes of Helen Thomas

By Paul Williams

Paul Williams

Paul Williams

EVER wondered about the role of political satire in a democracy?Is it just a bit of fun or, in the age of political spin, can the humble political cartoon or topical comedy skit really make a difference?

I pondered that last weekend on reading of the death of two famous figures.

Helen Thomas‘s name would mean little to those unfamiliar with US politics. But to generations of Americans, this quintessentially dogged journalist was a household name for the way she recorded that country’s political pulse.

Sadly, after spending the last few years embroiled in controversy, the woman to whom modern political journalism owes so much died on Saturday. She was 92.

Thomas’s legacy spans almost 70 years. From it, she leaves lessons on feminism and on piquant political journalism honed during 11 presidencies from Kennedy to Obama.

Importantly, those lessons are as valuable for a cynical public as much as they are for beginning journalists, who, as Woodward and Bernstein remind us, might think an online search for information is preferable to wearing out shoe leather.

Thomas was among a small coterie of women who shattered the glass ceiling of American journalism. At a time when women were still sentenced to the food and fashion pages, Thomas was one of the first to enter the “hard” news world of American national politics. She became the first female member of the National Press Club, and moved up the White House Press Corp to become her organisation’s bureau chief.

At White House briefings, Thomas for decades sat in the front row, asking prickly questions of presidents and press secretaries alike.

In fact, the older she grew, the more hunched her posture and the more probing her questioning. Foreign policy was a favourite and she took modern presidents to task for what she saw as an anti-Arab prejudice and questionable motives for the invasion of Iraq.

Comments in 2010 that some labelled anti-Semitic caused a Washington storm and she immediately resigned. For a woman who had committed her professional life to objectivity in truth-gathering, such partisanship sullied an otherwise enviable record.

But Thomas’s warning that news media “management” remains political journalism’s greatest challenge has not been lost. After all, there are fewer journalists covering politics in the US today than when Franklin Roosevelt was president and, even in Australia today, PR officers outnumber journalists four to one.

As Thomas long argued, there’s no substitute for good investigative journalism. But, in an age where spin and social media can manacle investigation, I’ve always argued that readers can at least rely on political satire as an antidote to PR. Read more at the Courier-Mail.

Helen Thomas: symbol of media decline

By Wes Vernon

Wes Vernon

Wes Vernon

Author’s Note: Below is a lightly updated version of an article I penned for The “Accuracy in Media Report” in 2009. The italicized material is new (except for the Editor’s Note at the beginning, which appeared in the original).

(Editor’s Note: On November 12, 2008. Editor & Publisher reported that “After surviving some health issues, Helen Thomas, the most veteran White House scribe, is ready to take on Barack Obama! She’s returned to her White House beat and is already complaining about him naming too many Clintonistas. She says she will not give Obama a honeymoon – oh, maybe, one day. Thomas reveals that she did vote for Obama and never thought there would be a black president.”

Following this report, Thomas gave an interview to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation morning TV interview show, “Sun Day,” and declared, “I’m a liberal, I was born a liberal, I’ll be one ’till I die. What else should a reporter be when you see so much and when we have such great privilege and access to the truth?”

In a January 19, 2009, column, Thomas declared that “…Obama has a lot to prove. Let’s hope he doesn’t blow it.”)

If one were to draw a cartoon-like character who embodies all the missteps and bias of the Washington media, he would have to invent Helen Thomas. She would be a good female/print counterpart to “Mr. Noseworthy,” manager of TV station WFDR in the Mallard Fillmore comic strip.

“Saturday Night Live” or the former Fox News “Half Hour News Hour” satire could not produce a fictional character who more tellingly parodies the liberal media than this grand dame of the liberalism that pervades the mainstream media.

The gold standard for reportorial behavior is supposed to be “objectivity” and the appearance of impartiality. That does not apply to opinion journalists who are often ideologically oriented and whose very livelihood depends on a readership/listenership/viewership that is attracted to them precisely because of their punditry.

Advocacy journalist

We are talking about straight reporters who supposedly arrive at the table with no intent to weave an agenda into the story. It can be argued, as this writer has, that anyone who covers the bitterest gut-wrenching political battles of our time and claims to have no opinions is likely to be judged either a liar or a moron. The point is – Does he/she try to play it down the middle in a way that is credible to a public that simply wants unvarnished facts? Human nature being what it is, your world outlook can affect your view of what is or what is not “news.” The question lies in an ability to report the news with some credibility.

For 57 years, Helen Thomas reported for United Press International, and in her later years she was its Washington Bureau Chief. Only in more recent months has she written a clearly-labeled opinion column for the Hearst newspapers.

Both during her long stint at UPI and her subsequent time with Hearst, Thomas gained a national reputation for posing questions at White House briefings that resembled partisan political speeches more than efforts to obtain facts.

She has claimed that none of this preaching showed up in her copy at UPI. Part of the reason – if that is true – may be that many of her longer stories from the White House went through the rewrite desk before popping up on the wire.

More to the point, even if the copy were cleansed of bias before reaching the public, the same public has had access to the live TV broadcasts carrying the White House briefings that include Thomas’s rant-filled “questions.” That makes her claim of “clean copy” a distinction without a difference.

Very few newspapers actually carry Thomas’s Hearst column. But it serves as a fig leaf for her press pass to attend the White House briefings, where she can lecture the nation via C-SPAN or other TV outlets on her personal views. No doubt Thomas honestly believes that what she says from her perch is more important than anything a mere president has to say. Read more at Renew America.

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