James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Helen Thomas, journalism and democracy

By Lydia Howell

I don't think a tough question is disrespectful.--Helen Thomas

American democracy took a big hit with the forced retirement of Helen Thomas, the First Lady of the Washington Press Corps.

When one considers how many scoundrels remain in powerful positions in both public and private life, the swiftness with which she was dumped after 50 years of reporting on U.S. presidents was breathtaking. More so when you listen to TV talking heads blandly repeating corporate and Pentagon PR as “news” and Faux News blowhards like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh shamelessly making vicious slanders, perpetrating outright lies and creating disinformation.

The last thing one hears in most places is the kind of tough question that was Helen Thomas' trademark.

Every president thinks that all information that comes to the White House is his private preserve after they all promise an open administration on the campaign trail, but some are more secretive than others. Some want to lock down everything.--Helen Thomas

Thomas recognized that it is essential for real democracy that the press must have an adversarial relationship to the president, in order to get to the facts about what the government is actually doing and why. She wasn't afraid to challenge the prevailing “defense of democracy” narratives about U.S. wars and occupations -- whether the President pushing them was a Republican or a Democrat. Whether it was George W. Bush, who Thomas called “the worst president in American history” or President Barack Obama, whom even MSNBC cheerleaders like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow hesitate to criticize, Thomas bluntly pierced the propaganda.

Government secrecy is an enemy of real democracy, and Thomas was a bright light trying to reveal what politicians aim to hide from the American people: no-bid contracts for “private contractors” bilking the public and committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture minimized as “enhanced interrogation,” the contradictions between presidents' speeches and actions.

You don't spread democracy through the barrel of a gun.
-- Helen Thomas

For Thomas, “collateral damage” is a cover-up word for civilian men, women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- and, yes, Gaza -- killed in the service of corporate empire-building. She made their deaths visible while most media erases them. Thomas focused on policies, not political party. She had no interest in the political “horse race” coverage that dominates so much reporting.

What got Thomas fired was a May 27 off-the-cuff remark about Israel -- the “third rail” of U.S. foreign policy. Thomas is the only contradictory journalistic voice that could be heard in the so-called
“mainstream” (corporate-owned) media.

From the New York Times to CNN, reporters have mouthed the mantras provided by Israel about their attack on the “freedom flotilla” ships that tried to take humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The Washington Post was at least honest enough to headline Glenn Kessler's piece for what it was: “Israel give its account of raid.” The rest of the U.S. media mostly went along with Israel's claim that heavily armed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos acted in “self-defense” against ships of civilians from 40 countries.

Soldiers fired live ammunition, used tasers and flash bombs on human rights activists, including a Nobel Prize winner, Ed Peck (a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East), Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, peace activist and retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright. Yet, unless one goes to the Internet and the international press (including dissenting voices in Israel itself), the attacks on the Freedom Flotilla have been told only from Israel's perspective.

Telling the other side was certainly possible within three days of the IDF assault as the Freedom Flotilla activists were released and and began speaking with or writng for international media outside the U.S. For example, Swedish author of the “Wallander” mystery series, Henning Mankell's “Flotilla Diary” was published in the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

Would Helen Thomas, at a White House press briefing, have quoted the emerging eyewitness accounts of the commando raids on the ships? Would she have raised the facts that the rest of the world already knows about Israel's three-year blockade of humanitarian aid to Gaza? Would she have asked President Obama how Israel's “security” was threatened by the ships' medicine, toys, wheelchairs, olive trees and cement for Palestinians still living in rubble and on what the World Health Organization has called “a starvation diet”?

Would any other reporter have done so?

She did.

On June 1, Thomas grilled White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “The initial reaction to the flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean you regret something that should be so strongly condemned, and if any other nation in the world had done it, we would have been up in arms? What is this ironclad relationship where a country that deliberately kills people and boycotts every aid and abet… the boycott [blockade of Gaza]?”


It was an IDF priority to conceal as much as possible of the attack from the world through censorship. Journalists and activists on the Freedom Flotilla say their satellite transmissions were quickly jammed. The international press is interviewing those journalists who say that IDF soldiers confiscated or
immediately destroyed all cameras, cell phones and lap top computers.

Those devices were not returned. Their legal owners say they had raw footage of the attack that would contradict Israel's propaganda campaign. However, raw, unedited footage of the Israeli assault is now becoming available anyway, and it shows the falsehood of the IDF-edited footage distributed widely shortly after the attack. Israel has now admited that audio was added to the IDF footage that U.S. media widely broadcast.

The June 10 edition of “Democracy NOW!” interviewed one of the journalists on the Flotilla and has some of the unedited video Israel did not manage to suppress:


Robert Mackey has also complied the raw video at:


Without Helen Thomas in the White House press room, will anyone confront Barack Obama about the U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel's ongoing violations of international law, or the additional $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel recently authorized for expenditure over the next decade?

We in the press have a special role since there is no other institution in our society that can hold the President accountable. I do believe that our democracy can endure and prevail only if the American people are informed. -- Helen Thomas

Increasingly, one hears about a “crisis in journalism” that is too often debated in terms of profits: “How can newspapers compete with the Internet? What's the 21st century economic model?”

What corporate-owned newspapers fail to debate is the real crisis in journalism, the crisis of content and perspective, independence and purpose of journalism in a democracy.

The career (and firing) of Helen Thomas speaks directly to the juncture that American journalism finds itself at: “Infotainment” or information? Probing for facts or press release distribution? Asking questions or echoing statements from public relations flunkies? Thomas didn't just jot down what press secretaries or presidents said. Unlike most of the Beltway hacks working in the corporate media, Thomas knows the difference between public relations and journalism.

Unfortunately, for the last 25 years, the job descriptions of the two fields increasingly have merged as schools of journalism and departments of advertising/marketing/public relations have been folded together into “communications” departments. Many of today's reporters don't appear to even know the difference between the craft of journalism and the craftiness of public relations. They are simply, “stenographers to power,” as writer Micheal Parenti calls them in a critique of the press of that name.

There's a reason that journalism is the only profession protected under our Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson remarked, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Democracy is threatened when the people do not know what their government is doing. Democracy can not survive when citizens are not informed about the issues of the day and the policies proposed to
address them.

Consider the gobbledy-gook that passes for reporting whenever another U.S. war is proposed or the confusion and sound-bites surrounding the health care “reform” bill approved by President Obama. When America's youth are to be sent around the world to kill and be killed or when major legislation that affects everyone, such as that on health care, is to be voted on by Congress, what is needed is deeply informed reporting that is skeptical of those with political power and wealth. Without that
kind of journalism, citizens cannot possibly participate in democracy in any meaningful way -- and true democracy is more than voting for packaged candidates every two to four years.

Few in the White House press corps have dug deeply enough to be actually informed. Acting more like celebrity writers, they worship the powerful people true journalism is supposed to hold accountable.

I doubt anyone left in the White House press room has the guts regularly shown by the petite 89- year-old woman who was just forced to retire.

American democracy will be further diminished towards without Helen Thomas' questions.

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, Minnesota, winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She is also producer/host of “Catalyst:politics & culture” on KFAI Radio.