Wes Vernon
Helen Thomas: symbol of media decline
By Wes Vernon
July 22, 2013

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.

Example #1 – Making false accusations

Helen Thomas: "Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the walls between church and state, and you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean that has stood in good stead by having this separation: Why do you break it down?"

That is one way of saying "Guilty as charged. What say you about it?" – the old "When did you stop beating your wife?" approach that goes beyond the normal "adversarial" role of the journalist.

It is one thing to quote critics who have taken President Bush to task for his efforts to assist local faith-based groups in their capacity to provide federal social services. Most Americans would have no problem with the Bush program. But the ACLU and others do. And asking the President to comment on their criticisms is legitimate.

However, to adopt the critics' position as the reporter's own view and demanding the President respond as if he were being questioned by a prosecutor rather than a reporter crosses the line and undermines the credibility of not just that particular scribe, but of the entire profession in the eyes of the public.

Here's how the rest of the question and answer period went:

President Bush: "Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state."

Thomas: "Well, you wouldn't have the religious office in the White House if you did."

Bush: "I didn't get to finish my answer, with all due respect. I don't believe it violates the line between the separation of church and state, and I believe it's going to make America a better place."

Thomas: "You are a secular official, and not a missionary."

Most of the above dialogue was caught on film and shown on the HBO pro-Thomas documentary "Thank you, Mr. President" on August 19.

Produced by Rory Kennedy – a niece of the late President John F. Kennedy – the production's one-sided thrust was too much even for the Washington Post liberal TV critic Tom Shales.

Under the heading "A Story with a Few Holes," Shales noted that "Mr. President's" short 38-minute length left it suspect of having been edited so as to delete "a blemish or two" on Thomas's career, "the documentary equivalent of cosmetic surgery."

Example #2 – The Hezbollah "point of view"

Thomas's affinity for Israel's enemies – as expressed in her "questions" – has been so pronounced that at one time, the late Tony Snow, when he was press secretary, was prompted to thank her for "the Hezbollah point of view."

That was not a flip comment. News reports have cited FBI findings that the Hezbollah terrorist organization has sleeper cells in the United States waiting to be galvanized into an action against the U.S. For the White House to accuse a reporter of (however unwittingly) mouthing Hezbollah propaganda is no small matter. And it goes beyond defending Israel.

This is a matter that deserved more than the passing attention it received in the mostly glowing HBO salute.

Thomas's pro-Arab "questions"/speeches on the Arab-Israeli wars have been typified by the following to then-spokesman Ari Fleischer in 2002: "Ari, does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?" Several years later, Thomas, in answer to a question from a rabbi, said the Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine." That proved to be too much even for her adoring colleagues, and ended Thomas's career.

Example #3 – Abuse of journalistic privilege

Attempts to gloss over the Thomas lectures with an air of – Oh, well, that's just Helen – came to a screeching halt when the "dean" of White House correspondents accused American troops in Iraq of targeting civilians. Press spokeswoman Dana Perino apparently decided the ultimate limit had been breached.

Perino: "Helen, I really find it unfortunate that you use your front-row position bestowed upon you by your colleagues to make such a statement. It is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room[, and] to suggest that we – as the United States – are killing the innocent is just absurd and very offensive."

Thomas: "How do you know how many we have?"

Perino: "We are going after the enemy, Helen. To the extent that any innocent Iraqi may have been killed, we have expressed regret for it."

Thomas: "Well, regret doesn't bring back a life."

Note: Nor have any lives been restored by regret for the deaths of nearly 3,000 American civilians on 9/11 in part because of the security policies of President Clinton's administration. And yet...

Example #4 – Excusing Democrats

The so-called "watchdog" of "the people's right to know" gives a pass to the impeached Bill Clinton, whose antics gave him the uncharitable moniker "Slick Willie."

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, she says, "it was downhill from then on. Of course, everybody started digging, digging, digging...a nightmare for the Clintons, I'm sure. For reporters, it was a story you couldn't avoid, even though you would have liked to have."

There it is – on the record. The "dean" of White House reporters admits she "would have liked to have" looked the other way if only some of her colleagues had not been at least mildly curious about issues that arguably dwarfed Mr. Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern.

Some real fodder for "digging, digging, digging" could have led a curious press corps to put some finality to:
  • Allegations of fund-raising practices that badly compromised our position vis-à-vis the Communist Chinese.

  • Credible charges of rape – a real first for a White House occupant, with NBC's play-down of a real first-rate investigative report by Lisa Meyers, who by the way was supported by AIM's intrepid founder, Reed Irvine.

  • Bill Clinton's rejection of an offer from Sudan to hand the U.S. Osama bin Laden on a platter.

  • The unresolved questions surrounding the death of Vince Foster, another instance where Reed Irvine's "digging, digging, digging" uncovered suspicious circumstances of little interest to a remarkably uncurious Washington wolf-pack.

  • The administration's persecution of Billy Dale, White House Travel Office Director for three decades, in order to make way for Clinton cronies. Dale was falsely accused of embezzlement (for which he was found not guilty in a court of law). The ruined and disrupted lives of Dale and six other employees were of little concern to the Clintons.
As an opener to that segment of the HBO telecast, the producers chose a film clip of President Clinton saying, "Well, let me first of all say once again I never ask anybody to do anything but tell the truth."

No sense of irony was noted at this comment by a law-license-losing perjurer – just the star reporter wailing about how the poor Clintons were tyrannized by "digging, digging, digging."

Introducing then ex-President Clinton in 2001 to an audience of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, Helen Thomas declared, "This lecture series is about the human spirit. To me and millions of others, President Clinton has always personified that. He is the man from Hope. We miss him. Thank you, Mr. President."

Most journalists working for organizations trying to present the appearance of "objective reportage" would be called to account for such a glowing tribute to a controversial contemporary political figure.

We could offer a complete list of the Clinton scandals, but even AIM's in-depth reports have space limits. Suffice it to say, none of these examples elicited the slightest detectable curiosity from the "dean" of White House reporters, who told her HBO interviewers there is nothing like "being there" to "see history in the making."

Example #5 – The double standard

"Thank you, Mr. President" showed Helen Thomas asking Richard Nixon some penetrating Watergate questions after the 37th president had effusively congratulated her on national television for ascending to the office of Washington Bureau Chief at UPI. The "doyenne" of the fawning press corps was also shown going after President Reagan on the trumped-up "Iran-Contra" case.

Even Shales' critique misses the point in that he opines of Thomas, "But she can't be accused of party partisanship, expressing fondness for Ronald Reagan, albeit mitigated ('very affable, but very, very distant') and disappointment in Jimmy Carter ('missed his calling...would have been a great minister')."

Reagan's steadfast determination to block the Soviet drive for world domination – despite contrary advice by some of the men around him – totally belies the Thomas portrayal of our 40th president as someone who was easily led by his White House inner circle.

Thomas runs interference for Jimmy Carter's failed foreign policies by saying, "I think his greatest [gift] to the country is that he made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy."

Not one word about the results of that "human rights" crusade: the demise of the Shah of Iran and the takeover by a hard-boiled Islamist state, followed by the taking of Americans as hostages for 444 days.

And how does the "dean" deal with credible accusations that Bill Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick in Arkansas in 1978? On the day the story broke in The Wall Street Journal, this was her incisive question to the president:

"What lessons have you learned from your thirteen-month ordeal [as the Broaddrick rape case is added to the Lewinsky affair]?"

Obviously, there is a pattern here in the Helen Thomas reportage: As viewed by this "gatekeeper" who "can't be accused of party partisanship," alleged Republican scandals are to be pursued to the ends of the earth, but a Democrat president accused of rape is forced to withstand an "ordeal." One is tempted to speculate whether Thomas would have shed virtual tears for the Obama "ordeal" over a heavy-handed IRS that shows every indication of fulfilling the president's vow to "reward our friends and punish our enemies" (to cite just one example).

Thomas judges that Lyndon Johnson should have had "more courage to pull out [of Vietnam] and it did him in." Missing was the slightest hint that Johnson's "no-win" strategy is what actually "did him in."

More Thomasisms include that George W. Bush is the "worst president" in history and that if Cheney runs for president "I'll kill myself" and that Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a "G—damned liar."

There is a tiny minority of conservative reporters at the White House, but none as outspoken in his/her views as the liberal Helen Thomas. John Gizzi, the longtime political editor of the conservative weekly Human Events (unfortunately shuttered after nearly 70 years), often has asked penetrating questions without making speeches.

But let a conservative journalist show up who does high-profile offense to the sensibilities of the liberal herd orthodoxy, and the long knives are out.


Much of this next story was told in a 2005 column by AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid, but the highlights are worth reviewing here in light of efforts to canonize Helen Thomas.

As Kincaid wrote, the left-wing bloggers had "taken the scalp of an online conservative journalist [Jeff Gannon]" because he was deemed "too pro-Republican, attended White House briefings, and asked questions unfair to Democrats." The left-wing Media Matters group dubbed the whole affair the "White House press room scandal."

But Kincaid noted that Helen Thomas had been giving anti-Bush speeches disguised as questions at these briefings for years without any critical comment from the liberals.

In his book The Great Media War, giving his side of the story, the controversial Gannon quotes Thomas as calling him "a propagandist, a flak for the White House." Given Thomas's history as recounted above, it is fair to say that Helen Thomas – a flak for almost every leftist cause to come down the pike – is hardly in a position to upbraid anyone for being a shill or a "propagandist."

Here is the question Gannon posed (Jan. 26, 2005) that caused his liberal colleagues to go ballistic:

"Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy being on the verge of collapse. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and [that] there's no crisis there. How are you going to work to reach out to these people...how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

One can argue that Gannon's question was worded in such a way as to violate the unspoken White House press corps culture that only liberal reporters are allowed the luxury of speechifying.

But two things need to be made clear – Gannon was working for Talon News, then an openly conservative opinion website that made no pretense at objectivity. And Gannon's question was legitimate: How could the White House hope to reach across the aisle to Democrats so hardened against giving any ground in a compromise?

Investigate him

The left-wing blogosphere – egged on by liberal White House reporters, including Thomas – launched a massive investigation of Gannon's personal and family life that was said to reveal that he was associated with some homosexual-sounding website addresses. This line of attack was ironic given that Media Matters, which led the attack on Gannon, was founded by David Brock, a one-time closeted homosexual.

The upshot was that Gannon ultimately decided to quit when his personal life came into the picture, complete with harassing phone calls to his mother who was in her seventies. Talon News – owned by Texas conservative activist Bobby Eberle – folded.

In his book, Gannon reports that "On many occasions...new arrivals and visitors would be escorted by a veteran reporter and presented to Thomas as she sat in her front-row briefing room seat.... [T]o me it looked like someone paying respect to a Mafia don."

This bowing and scraping before a woman who has played a role in the decline of good journalism bodes ill for the future. To make matters worse, Washington media worshippers of the grand dame plan to erect a permanent memorial to the octogenarian when she departs (as she now has, at age 92). That will tell future generations of journalists that the Helen Thomas brand of biased advocacy disguised as reporting is a good role model to follow. That "fork in the road" is now at hand.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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