Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Watchdogs of Democracy?

An informed public and open debate is vital to a healthy democracy, but they depend upon free access to the facts. A free and fair media is indispensable to democracy because they are the only institution that can regularly question the president and other public officials. However, not everyone thinks that the American media has been doing their job recently. One of those people is Helen Thomas.

Thomas is a journalist who has covered Washington news for more than 60 years. In her new book, Watchdogs of Democracy? The waning Washington press corps and how it has failed the public (NYC: Scribner, 2006), she turns a critical eye towards those in her vocation, and finds that journalism and journalists have changed dramatically, and not necessarily for the better, since the time when she began reporting the news under President Kennedy. In this book, her fourth, Thomas presents the views of many well-known journalists and press secretaries as she seeks answers to several important questions; Why is a free press important? Are we losing the sense of what the First Amendment was meant to be? Is the First Amendment seriously threatened? Is the media failing the public?

Thomas’s empassioned polemic is partially a memoir, partly instructional. It is obvious that she is deeply concerned about the media’s incomplete access to the president and even to his press secretary and is dismayed by the general confusion as to what exactly constitutes journalism. She begins by questioning how much Disney (ABC), Viacom (CBS), and General Electric (NBC) care about the freedom of the press, especially when these corporate giants risk losing advertising dollars if their media outlets present controversial information or viewpoints. After setting the stage, Thomas then launches into her argument, which fills eleven chapters, discussing relevant topics including heroic “leakers” and whistle-blowers such as W. Mark Felt, the famous “Deep Throat” who was instrumental to the Washington Post in breaking the Watergate scandal wide open; American presidents and the myriad creative ways that they manage and “spin” the news; and even describing how the same sequence of repressive events are occurring today in Iraq with foreign correspondents.

Even though the entire book was interesting, chapters 6-9 developed the essential nugget of the book’s premise. For example, Thomas devotes a chapter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and provides a historical overview of the events that led to the deregulation of the FCC and the repeal of the fairness doctrine. She shows how these events have hurt the ordinary citizen and have a chilling effect on free and fair public debate even as they help corporations and special interests. However, these changes did not occur overnight; rather, they resulted from a steady chipping away at those laws that supported the overarching principles of a free and fair press.

Currently, the same methods are being used to relax media ownership rules, making it possible that one company might own both the newspaper with the largest circulation and the television station with the highest ratings in the same market. Thomas points out that the American public’s right to know is already in trouble because the seven largest media companies control 80 percent of our access to information, and that, if the FCC proceeds to deregulate media ownership rules, it is conceivable that the entire news market will be dominated by a mere handful of corporate media giants.

Our elected officials are disturbed by this situation, too. “In a free and open society, in a democratic republic, you need a free and open discussion of the issues. We don’t have that today,” observed Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY). But there is plenty of blame left over for the public and Congress;

But where are the American people today in demanding diverse ownership of the airwaves? And where is Congress when they should be stopping the overreach of the giant broadcasting conglomerates?

Journalism also suffers from self-inflicted wounds, and Thomas has plenty of sharp words for fraudulent reporters, such as Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, whom she refers to as “miscreants”. Thomas also soundly criticizes her colleagues for not carefully scrutinizing the White House’s stated reasons for invading Iraq, claiming that her colleagues (perhaps stunned in the aftermath of 9-11?) were in a “coma”, merely acting as White House stenographers. She goes on to say;

I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws of the Bush administration’s war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.

It was past time for reporters to forget the party line, ask the tough questions, and let the chips fall where they may.

Unfortunately, during that time and despite her seniority, Thomas herself was rarely allowed to question the President during his press conferences and was repeatedly frustrated by inconsistent access to even the president’s press secretary. (Although she did make good use of her one opportunity to grill Bush, which occurred after this book went to press).

Thomas also explores the practice and ethics of journalism, explaining, for example, how a reporter can disguise an especially vulnerable source and the circumstances under which they should (and should not) do so. She then goes on to discuss in some detail the completely indefensible imprisonment of journalist Judith Miller for contempt in connection with the Plame scandal because Miller refused to reveal her source for a story that she never wrote. This is particularly important because it served as a resounding wake-up call, reminding the public that neither the common law nor the Constitution provide specific federal protections for nondisclosure of a reporter’s sources. Yet, this time-honored tradition is considered to be so vital to a true functioning democracy that many states have wisely enacted “shield laws” or have recognized a common-law or qualified privilege to fill in that constitutional gap. In view of the importance of this nation’s First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press, Thomas wonders why the courts have been unable to develop an organized approach to protecting these valuable freedoms.

Interestingly, Thomas also mentions blogs and bloggers several times and, while recognizing their value to society, she flatly states that;

Bloggers online have added to the mix with personal viewpoints providing an interesting public forum for millions of people, although they certainly do not pass as journalists, in my opinion. They are advocates and do not meet the standard of being “fair” in their output.

A viewpoint that I agree with.

I have tremendous respect for Thomas and for her lifetime of journalistic achievements, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that her prose did not shine in this book, as I had expected from such a practiced journalist. Even though she is clearly fair, well-informed and passionate about her vocation, I thought her writing was uneven and stilted at times, repetitive at other times. Nevertheless, despite the lack of good editing, the issues discussed in this book are very important and Thomas’s observations are valid and carefully supported, so my one criticism should not discourage anyone from reading this important book.

.

Helen Thomas is the dean of the White House press corps. The recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees, she was honored in 1998 with the inaugural Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, established by the White House Correspondents’ Association. The author of three other books, she lives in Washington DC and writes a syndicated editorial column twice per week for Hearst newspapers and a podcast for the San Francisco Chronicle. More about Helen Thomas.

.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    June 21, 2006

    Unfortunately, Ms. Thomas is also one of the leading Israel bashers among the Washington press corps, rivaling such luminaries as Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak. For instance, she has demanded that the Israeli government tear down the fence currently under construction between Israel and the West Bank. Apparently, her purpose is to make it easier for the homicide bombers to get through.

  2. #2 Kristjan Wager
    June 21, 2006

    Apparently, her purpose is to make it easier for the homicide bombers to get through.

    This is a vile claim, entirely without basis.

    That’s not her purpose, nor is it the purpose of most others who opose the fence. Rather, the objection is that it doesn’t do anything towards dealing with the root source of the suicide bombers, and only serve to increase tension in the area. You might disagree with this opinion, but the kind of vile slander you make is entirely uncalled for.

  3. #3 llewelly
    June 21, 2006

    … despite her seniority …

    Funny, it always seemed to me she was rarely allowed to question the president because of her remarkable qualifications.
    .
    AFAICT, the Bush regime has gone to great lengths to deliberately impede competent reporters.

  4. #4 SLC
    June 21, 2006

    Re the reply by Kristjan to my comment on Israel basher Ms. Thomas. This is quite typical of the people who have not learned the lessons of the attitude toward Hitler during the 1930′s and who believe that the answer to terrorism is appeasement. Appeasment only increased Hitlers’ appetite for agression. The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians have made it clear that the only agreement they will accept with the State of Israel is the dissolution of that state and its replacement with an Arab state. Furthermore, the evidence is that the fence has been very effective in preventing homicide bombers (none have been from the Gaza strip where the fence is complete). Therefore, I think it is fair comment to state that anyone opposed to the fence is a supporter of homicide bombers. As to the assertion that the fence only increases tensions in the area, my reaction is that the only duty of the Government of the State of Israel is to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. I suspect that if homicide bombers were found to be crossing the Mexican border and carying out attacts in San Diego, the Government of the United States would not hesitate for an instant to react with overwhelming force to stop the incursions and a president who failed to do so would be impeached and removed from office in record time.

  5. #5 wolfwalker
    June 21, 2006

    There are a great many things I could say about Helen Thomas, but most of them are opinion and more than a few would be unfit for public consumption. So instead I’ll just ask two questions:

    1) Thomas thinks the press should have done more to prevent the Iraq war. I ask: what more could they have possibly done? I don’t recall seeing one single news story that was anything but negative about Bush’s plan to attack Iraq — not before the invasion, not during the invasion, not after the invasion. His position was always spun to make it sound weaker than it really was, while the antiwar side’s arguments were always spun to make them sound stronger than they really were.

    2) I’ve seen or heard tapes of Thomas “asking a question” at Bush administration press conferences and press briefings. When a spokesman or briefer does let her ask a question, it’s invariably a hectoring and vitriolic attack disguised as a question, which she never even gives the spokesman a chance to respond to. It sounds like a creationist in the middle of a Gish Gallop — a series of illogical, inconsistent, fact-free gibberish that takes ten seconds to say and would take thirty minutes to refute. In other words, she doesn’t act like an objective reporter. Rather, she acts like a mad dog with no more sense of honor or integrity than she ascribes to Bush. I ask: why should Bush (or indeed, any public figure) show her any more respect than she shows him?

    As something of a student of history, I might also point out that the American press has rarely if ever been particularly free or fair. Thomas gets the effect of the Fairness Doctrine exactly wrong — since when did the First Amendment allow the government to decide what should be fair play in the press? — and she looks backward through rose-colored glasses to a form of news media that never actually existed.
    If you can look past the fact that you agree with her and give her arguments a truly objective critique, I think you’ll find she is no more truthful or accurate than those she’s arguing against.

  6. #6 Alon Levy
    June 22, 2006

    The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians have made it clear that the only agreement they will accept with the State of Israel is the dissolution of that state and its replacement with an Arab state.

    The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians have made it clear that they don’t want a corrupt government. If you think they voted the Hamas in because of its extremism, you’re wrong. The Fatah was plagued with corruption and incompetence, and the Hamas offered an attractive alternative.

  7. #7 Kristjan Wager
    June 22, 2006

    Therefore, I think it is fair comment to state that anyone opposed to the fence is a supporter of homicide bombers.

    You might think so, but it’s not a fair comment.

    You could state that removing the fence would defacto help the suicide bombers, and that as such arguing for a removal of the fence would help the suicide bombers. However, that’s not what you argued – you make claims on the result, but on the motive, which is what makes your comments so vile.

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    June 22, 2006

    “you make claims on the result” should of course be “you make claims not on the result”.

  9. #9 SLC
    June 22, 2006

    In response to Mr. Levy, I would point out that the Fatah party was in charge of the PA in 2000 when its president, Yasir Arafat rejected the proposal offered by President Clinton which would have given the Palestinians 97% of what they wanted (this is not my assessment, this is the assessment of President Clinton and his head negotiator, Dennis Ross). The fact of the matter is that Arafat rejected the proposal because he knew that his constituents would not support it. The Palestinians will not accept any proposal which does not include the so called right of return, which, of course, would lead to the dissolution of the State of Israel. As for the comment by Kristjan concerning Ms. Thomas’s motives in demanding the fence be removed, I would point out that she must know, as even you admit, that the result of removing the fence would be a resumption of homicide bombings. Therefore, one can only conclude that this result, at the least, causes her little concern.

  10. #10 Alon Levy
    June 22, 2006

    The fact of the matter is that Arafat rejected the proposal because he knew that his constituents would not support it.

    Sure, because Arafat always deeply cared for the average Palestinian’s opinions.

    As for the comment by Kristjan concerning Ms. Thomas’s motives in demanding the fence be removed, I would point out that she must know, as even you admit, that the result of removing the fence would be a resumption of homicide bombings.

    That’s bullshit. There are other issues involved, such as the fact that the fence goes through the heart of the West Bank, separating Palestinian civilians from their livelihoods, giving sadistic checkpoint guards more power to abuse innocent people, and legitimizing settlements. If the fence went around the West Bank instead of through it, nobody would have given a damn, except for shrill proponents of Greater Israel.

  11. #11 SLC
    June 22, 2006

    I have the following responses to Mr. Levys’ comments.

    1. Unlike Saddam Hussein and Hafaz Assad, Yasir Arafat was not an abolute dictator. He stayed in power by playing off the various factions within the Palestinian community against each other and therefore was not in a position to agree on a settlement with which most of these factions would have demurred.

    2. Mr. Levy is seriously in error in stating that the fence goes through the heart of the West Bank. The fact of the matter is that over 90% of the West Bank lies to the East of the fence. He is apparently too busy reading Amira Hess’ crap.

    3. According to the UTI web site, with which Mr. Levy is affiliated, he is planning to move to the USA shortly. Since he is so worked up about the settlements on the West Bank, I would suggest that he not purchase property here as all of the land was taken by force from Native Americans and he certainly wouldn’t want to own stolen land.

  12. #12 Kristjan Wager
    June 24, 2006

    SLC, why are you addressing Alon as ‘Mr. levy’, and me by my first name? That’s a trait I’ve only observed among male chauvinist, who is of the mistaken impression that I’m female.

  13. #13 SLC
    June 25, 2006

    To Mr. Wager: I addressed you by the first name because I was uncertain of your sex! Having been elucidated, I will henceforth address you as Mr. Wager.