Doubting Thomas vs. the Hypocrisy of American Journalism

Helen Thomas began her career in journalism as a “copy girl” for the Washington Daily News in 1942. That career ended abruptly this week in the fallout from tendentious remarks she made on camera to Rabbi David Nesenoff when asked to comment on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s long past time for Thomas, 89 — who began covering presidential politics during the Eisenhower administration and has been seemingly bolted to White House Briefing Room floor since the days of JFK’s “Camelot” — to go.

Maybe the conventional wisdom is right. What’s disturbing, though, is that debate among American journalists over Thomas is centered not around the content of her opinions but around the fact that she has opinions, that she’s been notably unafraid to wear those opinions on her sleeve during her half-century of public presidential interrogations, and that those opinions often swim against the current of the American media consensus.

Take, for example, the deposition of CBS correspondent Mark Knoller, as quoted by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post (“Helen Thomas, tarnished icon,” 06/08/10):

She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view …. she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters.

Ah, “objectivity” — a conceit peculiar to, and constituting the central doctrine of, American journalism. In theory, our reporters maintain a position of strict neutrality in the arguments of the day. Like Detective Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet, they can be counted upon to care about nothing but “the facts, ma’am.”

That conceit and that doctrine are pure sham. American journalism functions, for the most part, not as a “fourth estate” independent of government, but as a fourth branch of government.

When “reporters” from the Washington Post and the New York Times aren’t busy transcribing the claims of government officials and blithely parroting those claims as “objective fact” — does “Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq” ring any bells? How about “Iran on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons?” — they’re more likely, as Glenn Greenwald of Salon notes (“Our hard-core, adversarial press corps,” 06/07/10) to be found partying with the elite of the same political class they “cover” on the clock than getting the scoop from Deep Throat in a Rosslyn parking garage.

The “mainstream media,” whether as a matter of conscious policy or subconscious predilection, limits the parameters of their ongoing inquiry to the little questions:

Should Party A or Party B (take care not to mention Party C, or worse yet “None of the Above”) take the reins of government this November, or shall we wait until two years hence for the ceremonial hand-off?

Is policy proposal A preferable to ever-so-slightly different policy proposal B (zip your lips before asking whether or not the issue requires “policy” at all)?

The reporter whose questions stray outside the coloring-book lines — who, for example, questions the current scope of, let alone the ultimate need for — state power in any way risks his invitation to Joe Biden’s pool party next weekend, and may even find himself without a White House press pass or, for that matter, a job.

Thomas, too, generally refrained from asking the biggest of the big questions. But at least she didn’t let faux obeisance to “objectivity” force her to shy from asking hard questions, or from treating mealy-mouthed, massaged responses as unsatisfactory. Like all reporters, she had her opinions. Unlike most reporters, she didn’t pretend otherwise. Today’s cub reporter could do worse than to emulate her.

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