Helen Thomas' new book, Watchdogs of Democracy? -- her missive on the failings of the Washington press corps, especially on reporting surrounding the Iraq war -- may as well have saved the question mark in the title and just been named "Lapdogs." Thomas has covered every president since John F. Kennedy, and her latest book is a combination memoir, press critique, tutorial on various White House message management techniques and an assessment of assorted White House press secretaries.
Here's a sample: "My criticism of the press secretaries in the Bush-2 administration is that they are robots parroting the party line, on message word for word. They are afraid to deviate even when they are spouting nonsense. They stay on one page, no matter what the question."
WATCHDOGS OF DEMOCRACY?
THE WANING WASHINGTON PRESS CORPS AND HOW IT HAS FAILED THE PUBLIC
By Helen Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 249 pages, $25
Thomas' book is strongest on instructing readers on how the spin machine works. It is weakest in placing special blame on the reporters who cover the White House -- a relatively small but high-profile subset of the overall Washington press corps -- for not challenging more strongly the Bush White House rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.
The legendary Thomas now is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, which means she is entitled to public opinions, and she has plenty. She is an unyielding critic of the Iraq War and the Bush White House.
As a columnist, Thomas finds no reason to end her habit of showing up. She remains a regular at White House briefings and yes, her Iraq questions have an argumentative premise. Thomas' reputation was made not as a pundit, but as the dogged White House correspondent for United Press International.
Disclosure: I've known Thomas for many years and regard her as a friend. I have enormous gratitude for her and Fran Lewine, her former Associated Press rival who also covered the White House.
Though Thomas is the better known of the two, first Thomas and then Lewine broke through the glass ceilings that held back female reporters in Washington -- from membership in the National Press Club to the Gridiron, to the leadership of the White House Correspondents' Association. The two -- well past usual retirement ages -- are still in the game, Thomas at Hearst and Lewine as a producer at CNN.
Thomas picks up on themes from her earlier book, Front Row at the White House -- My Life and Times. In that record of covering eight administrations, Thomas describes her charge on the White House beat as that of a "White House watchdog."
In this latest book, her fourth, Thomas runs through the major scandals and dilemmas plaguing U.S. journalism in the last few years, and this alone makes the book worthwhile for anyone interested in the news business. Thomas sums up the scandal surrounding former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who made stuff up and ripped off others, to the Pentagon's fake Hollywood version of the circumstances of the wounding and rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch in Iraq, to the mainstream media blind eye to the Downing Street Memo to the CIA leak investigation and the agenda-setting impact of bloggers.
The heart of the book from the dean of the White House journalists is the thesis that reporters on the beat did not press hard enough to get the Bush White House to justify the Iraq invasion. The book is subtitled, The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it has Failed the Public.
"The naive complicity of the press and the government was never more pronounced than in the prelude to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq," Thomas writes. "The media became an echo chamber for White House pronouncements. Sadly, too, many statements were misleading and false on both sides. Reporters became stenographers instead of interrogators."
Three pages later, she writes: "My concern is why the nation's media were so gullible. Did they really think it was all going to be so easy, a cakewalk, a superpower invading a third world country?" Where was the skepticism, she asks.
White House reporters were "asleep at the switch" and in a "coma," too "timid" to "confront" the administration, Thomas chastises. From the beginning of the book, Thomas raises the matter of whether "something vital" has been lost in American journalism and whether the press defaulted on its watchdog role.
I'm not as critical as Thomas. I think the tough questions were asked. The problem was few journalists were able to dig at the answers. There has been a lot of soul searching about the coverage leading up to the Iraq war. Getting the facts was not easy. The difficulty in determining whether a key Bush claim -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction -- was so formidable that even former Secretary of State Colin Powell was duped. Remember his testimony at the United Nations?
Many journalists and editors for national outlets in Washington and New York -- more than just the White House reporters who have their hands full covering the daily developments on the beat -- have written self assessments about reporting failings in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Sun-Times.
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