JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 8, 2010
Now that Helen Thomas has retired, the inevitable nostalgia has followed. Dana Milbank, while condemning her comments on Israel, lauds her as a needed voice of journalistic skepticism:
Yet the White House press corps will be diminished without Helen front and center, and not only because she was in that job before the current president was born. She brought a ferocity to her questioning that has eluded too many in subsequent generations. At a time when others were getting cozy with sources, her crabby, unrelenting hostility was refreshing.
And Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel offers an even glossier take:
Columnist Helen Thomas, a trailblazer for women journalists and one of the few in the White House press corps who courageously questioned President Bush and other officials in his administration on war, torture and U.S. policy toward Israel, announced her retirement Monday. It comes in the wake of a controversy triggered by offensive comments she made about Jews and Israel last week.
It is a sad ending to a legendary career. Thomas was the dean of the White House press corps and served for 57 67 years as a UPI correspondent and White House Bureau Chief, covering every president since John F. Kennedy. During the run-up to the Iraq war, Thomas was the only accredited White House correspondent with the guts to ask Bush the tough questions that define a free press.
It's not a surprise that the Helen Thomas myth has come in for another rehash. If you didn't read my article about her from 2006, allow me to summarize. Thomas didn't ask tough questions and she didn't hold the press to account. She spent decades as a wire service stenographer. In the latter years of her career, she alternated between collecting awards at an astonishing pace -- none of them mentioning her utterly unmemorable work -- and launching left-wing broadsides at press secretaries. I summarized a couple examples:
It is hard to imagine what admissions could be extracted from questions like, "Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal occupation?" Or lectures like, "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. I mean, what is the reason we are there, killing people, continuing? It's outrageous." At the historic occasion of the first press conference of Bush's first term, Thomas took the opportunity to ask: "Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that a country has stood in good stead by having a separation--why do you break it down?"
If Thomas helped anybody, it was Republicans who endlessly repeated clips of her questioning in order to suggest that the entire press corp was filled with openly hostile left-wing ideologues. It certainly served no journalistic purpose. The way you hold a president to account is by uncovering information, not by hurling insults at his spokesman.
Milbank lauds Thomas for holding "the opinion that anybody standing on that podium should be regarded with skepticism." Of course, Thomas's skepticism came uniformly from the left. What if the sole member of the press corps who used the perch to launch ideologically-charged broadsides was not a left-winger like Thomas but a right-winger like, oh, Ron Paul?
I suppose one could argue that it would make sense to revamp the entire format of the White House press briefing and turn it into a kind of Bill O'Reilly show where some ideologue screams insults at the press secretary. But if you did that, it would have to involve representatives of numerous ideological viewpoints. And it would have to be some kind of separate format from the briefing where reporters ask actual questions.