What's become of the press?

The 'dean' of the White House press corps speaks her mind about the state of US journalism today.

Helen Thomas delivers a scathing rebuke to the media in her classic, tell-it-like-it-is style that helped catapult her to fame in presidential press conferences. She not only exposes what she sees as the flaws in journalism, but outlines a vision for how to bring about positive change.

In her fourth book, Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It has Failed the Public, the newswoman who is referred to as dean of the White House press corps answers that rhetorical question. She delivers her response in an unflinching style that at some points makes her book read like a 201-page admonition.

For the most part, she concludes, today's mainstream media have abdicated the role of watchdog. She sees the Iraq war as the ultimate example of what happens when journalists stop being watchdogs: Lives and the public trust are lost, she writes. She faults her press colleagues who she feels not only didn't ask the tough questions themselves, but also failed even to stand with her when she did pose such questions before the war began.

Sixty years of perspective

Ms. Thomas reveals how the White House press corps came to this low point from her unique perch as a longtime White House correspondent for United Press International. Having covered nine presidents (she began working as a reporter in the White House press corps during John F. Kennedy's presidency and has continued on up through George W. Bush), she recounts the sometimes-rocky relationships the press has with US presidents and their press secretaries.

Through Thomas's tales, readers can view the deterioration through her eyes: President Kennedy had regretted that the press did not publicize the Bay of Pigs invasion, which he later said could have prevented the debacle from happening. More recently, she says, President Bush never stopped trying to control all aspects of news about the Iraq war.

But she makes clear that journalists are not the only ones to blame for the erosion of the watchdog role. It's been exacerbated by the consolidation of media companies that can restrict ideas and by the targeting of reporters who pledge confidentiality to their sources. That's what she believes happened in the recent CIA-leak case that jailed Judith Miller of the New York Times. Thomas makes her own compelling case for a federal shield law to protect a free press and cites support from lawmakers of both parties.

For sure, Thomas generally expresses a pessimistic view of the media's role today. And although she aims her criticism at the younger generation of journalists, she provides some helpful tips: Read plenty of US history, give all the facts, and don't pander to anyone.

Her hope, she writes, is "that the new generation of journalists who come along will understand the role of journalism in a democracy and put it back on the pedestal where it belongs."

Praise for the past

Until that happens, Thomas longs for the good old days. One chapter extols the journalists she most admires, many of whom have died. (This includes her husband, Douglas Cornell, once a White House correspondent for the Associated Press.) Thomas's ideology comes sharply into focus as she also touts a few liberal opinion columnists, including E.J. Dionne and Paul Krugman. She also wonders if any journalist "stars" will emerge from today's reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

In various parts in the book, a liberal viewpoint is on display. Thomas uses liberal pundits to bolster her claims that the rise of media consolidation and the demise of the fairness doctrine (which permitted a response to personal attacks or political editorials) are bad for American democracy.

In her arguments, there's a poll from Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog group in Washington, and quotes from liberals Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) of New York. In fact, Thomas notes Representative Hinchey's comments that media consolidation "is the most critical issue facing the American people today."

Thomas's book sounds the alarm to the media and the public. Her 60-some years of experience bid journalists to pay heed to the pitfalls of not being conscientious.

Ari Pinkus is a national news editor for the Monitor.

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