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.