Sunday, July 21, 2013

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas, a woman reporter who covered 10 presidents over five decades, died yesterday at 92. The fulsome yet ginger praise attending on her death is not what I have in mind by mentioning it ... the oh-boy-I-liked-her-values-and-want-you-to-imagine-that-therefore-I-have-shiny-values-too sycophancy.

Yes, Helen Thomas asked the questions the White House press corps learned not to ask -- the questions a Detroit housewife might ask; and she thought the job of the press was to be a pain in the ass on behalf of those who paid the bills but were denied a voice; and she was a woman in a man's game; and she was, enfin, a small oasis in a dry and self-serving land. But her standout quality to me was in suggesting what had been forsworn by others ... the willingness to lose everything on behalf of a story without which democracy became more cozily undemocratic.

In the wish-I'd-done-that department, there was Thomas' question to George W. Bush, the man Thomas considered "the worst president in all American history." Her question: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. 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?" Even those reporting on the question later managed to truncate her words, to segue into commentary that implicitly depicted Thomas as a batty aunt you couldn't not-invite to the party. Thomas had dared to fly into a fire that other reporters might admire from a 'thoughtful' distance, but the blue and immolating heat was too much for them.

Thomas was unrepentant and perhaps delighted a bit too much in her unwillingness to repent. She made no secret of her disdain for the shot-cuff press corps that pimped for political agendas, the Downton Abbey establishment that had an ever-lengthening list of excuses for not serving the democracy of the country. Their refrain: "If we ask the hard questions, our sources will cut us off from access to information and we won't be able to do our jobs." It is not quite as corrupt as the Chinese view of media as a tool of agitation and propaganda ... or maybe it is, but it is ever so much smoother, more reasonable, more self-serving. Joseph Goebbels was a Cub Scout by comparison.

Thomas' own liberal, whirling-dervish mouth got her into trouble when she suggested that Israeli Jews  just get out of Palestine and return to Germany, Poland or the United States, places, she implied, where Jews were more rightfully "at home." The Downton Abbey constituency bared its usually-concealed fangs on that one -- and Thomas 'quit' her job as a Hearst columnist. 

I never much liked Thomas' work. I didn't dislike it, but I wouldn't seek it out as I might seek out the offerings of Molly Ivins, a hard-nosed columnist who did her homework and only then suggested there was something lunatic in the works. I never got the sense that Molly Ivins would sell her tale as a means of elevating her own stock or that she would name the assholes without seriously considering that they might not be assholes. Not that Thomas struck me as another self-promoting blogger-turned-White-House-shill. I just didn't cotton as much to her stuff. 

I have no doubt that Helen Thomas did some wonderful things. But the thing that impresses me is not what her body of work says about her -- it's what her approach and body of work says about the rest of us. 

Luckily or not, I think the Internet is bringing the shot-cuff, Downton Abbey, agitprop approach to news to its knees. Sound bites and pancake make-up and vast income masquerading as news-gathering is being challenged. It may be hard to ferret out the facts (a job once alleged by news organizations), but the opportunity exists, however confounding it may be. Asking ALL of the questions is what the housewife in Detroit does. 

Helen Thomas helped.

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