‘Managed’ News

October 16, 2009

Journalists covering the White House, especially those from TV, sometimes tend to think of themselves as above the crowd, as better than the average asshole reporter digging for stories down in the trenches.

As Nadia Bilbassy, White House correspondent for the Dubai-based satellite TV network MBC, told Think Progress last month: I found that I think they really think that if you make it to cover the White House then you must be bigger than God, therefore, you know, you have to be treated as such.

Except for one gal, the dean (or headmistress) of the WH press corp: Helen Thomas.

(Illustration found here).

Thomas has been covering WH antics for nearly 50 years, starting with JFK (in the photo above) and still running strong into a new millennium with President Barack Obama (photo below).
She still maintains that pure journalism appeal: Those in power hate her.

During his WH press conferences, George Jr. didn’t call on Thomas for three years!
In May 2006, he wished he’d made it four years.
An exchange on the Iraqi War:

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 —
Bush: Helen, excuse me. That’s where — Afghanistan provided safe haven for al-Qaeda. That’s where they trained. That’s where they plotted. That’s where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

(Illustration found here).

Yesterday, Time magazine held a Q&A with Thomas on the publication of her newest book, Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do, and she was still up-front and right-on:
How is Obama’s approach to the press?

Everybody in the White House tries to manage us. There’s always the spin. When Kennedy came in, which was the first year I started covering the White House, there was something called “managed news.” And through the years it has been perfected to an art.

Not more than any other President. Nobody likes criticism, and nobody likes to feel attacked, of course. But I think it behooves all Administrations to tell the truth as much as they can, to bring the people with them. You cannot have a democracy without informed people. It shouldn’t be a shock when the public finally learns things.

How’s the WH on secrecy?

All of them are secretive. All of them. But I think we got a lot more out of President Kennedy and especially President [Lyndon] Johnson. He would summon us — the entire press corps — to the South Lawn and we’d stroll around the grounds with him. We’d call them the Bataan Death Marches because the women wore really high heels with pointed toes, and we would be falling all over each other. But we’d take these walks, and he would really let his hair down. We’d get real insight into how much he was suffering with Vietnam. He’d tell us a lot of things, then he would say it was all off the record. But we knew that he wanted us to write it without attribution.

And bloggers?

Everyone with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist. Everyone with a cell phone thinks they’re a photographer. So our profession is sidelined in a way. There’s no turning back. It’s frightening because you can ruin lives and reputations willy-nilly without realizing it. No editors. No standards. No ethics. We’re at the crossroads. So many newspapers that are so valuable are going down the drain. It’s a crisis.

I’m praying. I’m praying that we’ll still have newspapers. That’s where you get in-depth information. You can’t get it from headline news or these very brief things on TV or on blogs. They don’t explain anything.

And advice for future presidents?

It would be, Do the right thing. There’s no other place to go.

Continue hanging, Helen, we’d all better off if you did.

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