Monday, January 7, 2008

Helen Thomas on the media in time of democracy

Legendary journalist Helen Thomas says reporters aren't asking candidates hard questions about foreign policy, domestic surveillance and the economy.

"Why don't they nail them on these issues?" Thomas asked.

"I don't understand why reporters haven't been asking these candidates all along how they feel about the war in Iraq. That should be at the top of the agenda," Thomas said in an exclusive phone interview with Michigan Messenger. "We've killed almost a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's drained our treasury. The debt is going to be monumental."

Raised in Detroit and a graduate of Wayne State University, Thomas considers Michigan her home. At 87, she is a columnist with Hearst News Service and still attends White House briefings and press conferences. Her 2006 book, "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it has Failed the Public," describes a compromised, weak press reluctant to question politicians and dig for truth in government.

As the presidential primary intensifies, Thomas, who served as a UPI White House correspondent for decades, wonders about candidates' positions on the war in Iraq, torture, habeas corpus, erosion of civil liberties, wiretapping, foreclosures, workers' rights, poverty and health care.

Acknowledging the chilling effect of the Sept. 11th attacks on public discourse and investigative journalism, Thomas said, "I do think 9-11 had a tremendous impact on all of our society. It's very passive now. We should be out in the streets screaming. The fear card was played to the hilt. People, reporters especially, were afraid to be called un-American, unpatriotic, if they asked very challenging questions."

Still, she contends that reporters with access to the presidential candidates are shirking their responsibility to voters, who at this point she believes are "flying blind."

"I know how I'd be covering them if I were walking beside them," she said. "I think whoever goes into the presidency ought to be thoroughly defined on the issues."

Having reported on every president since Kennedy and earning the title "First Lady of the Press," Thomas has a reputation for incisive, direct and fearless questions.

At a press conference on March 21, 2006, she asked President Bush about his justifications for initiating war in Iraq, saying: "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?"

With a long view of history, Thomas has strong feelings about the war in Iraq. "We've never been aggressors before," she said. Unprovoked attack on Iraq is at the heart of her criticism of the Bush administration, which she considers a turning point in the American presidency, marked by a loss of credibility, leadership and trust.

Her criticism of the current administration includes its treatment of enemy combatants and tolerance of harsh interrogation techniques. "I think that everybody should be alarmed. Every American has been tainted now. Anybody who would resort to such tactics and denial of due process and keeping suspects -- so-called -- in limbo for six years, without charge, no trial, no convictions, keeping them in darkness -- that is surely not us."

Contrasting the neoconservative foray into Iraq with the Cold War, she said, "We won the Cold War over sixty years with wonderful things -- exchange students, exchange teachers, the Voice of America, the pope, rock music, blue jeans, ideas. Fortunately, Gorbachev opened the window a bit. Basically, we didn't go into World War III."

Thomas has hope for the electoral process and the presidency. "I do hope in the coming election that the best man or woman wins, who has the best ideas. Because when you get to the top of the mark, which is the White House, it seems to me you should only want to do the right thing. You have tremendous power. I am hoping we'll resurrect ourselves."

A front-row witness to history, Thomas manages optimism for the future. "We can always hope for peace. It would be wonderful if we would move toward disarmament and making peace with even our greatest adversaries. We should keep talking rather than shooting," she said.