Journalism used to have icons, larger-than-life figures that blasted through television screens and tore through newsprint like banshees. They went on missions not assignments, were driven by purpose instead of paychecks, and remained dead serious when someone referred to their roles as fulfilling a public trust.
Those days – those journalists – are gone. But this column isn’t about nostalgia – I still believe journalism’s best days are ahead, and that shifts in society and advances in technology are paving the way to changes we can only imagine today.
But if the past is prologue, then yesterday’s journalists are more relevant now than ever – which is why when Helen Thomas asks a question at a Presidential press conference, every journalism student and budding citizen reporter in the country needs to listen and learn.
Helen asked President Bush a question this week. It may be the last question the former United Press International reporter and now syndicated columnist asks a sitting president, given her age and this president’s aversion to the press and to her. Her tone and directness may make you cringe, and it should – not because of what she says, but because what she says is something the rest of the Washington press corps should have said much earlier.
Following is a brief except of the exchange between Helen and President Bush, courtesy of Editor and Publisher:
THOMAS: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
BUSH: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect…
BUSH: Hold on for a second, please.
THOMAS: -- everything I've heard…
BUSH: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.
Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second…
THOMAS: They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.
BUSH: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained…
THOMAS: I'm talking about Iraq…
So, is Helen Thomas a pain in the ass? Yes, she is – a wonderful, dedicated, unabashed and unforgiving pain in the ass. That’s her job, no matter what the president, what the party or what the generation.
Administrations change, but good journalism should not. I have met Helen several times (we both worked for UPI and lived to tell the tale) and she is as sweet when not working as your grandmother. But like your grandmother, she will get in your face if you step out of line.
In a world of journalist celebrities, Helen Thomas is an icon – and a reminder to professional and citizen journalists everywhere that if we don’t hold our leaders accountable, who will?
Helen, I’ll let you have the final word:
“Reporters and editors like to think of themselves as watchdogs for the public good,” Thomas says in her forthcoming book about the Washington press corps. “But in recent years both individual reporters and their ever-growing corporate ownership have defaulted on that role. Ted Stannard, an academic and former UPI correspondent, put it this way: ‘When watchdogs, bird dogs, and bull dogs morph into lap dogs, lazy dogs, or yellow dogs, the nation is in trouble.’ ”